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Friday, April 18, 2014

IPCC on natgas, CCS

The IPCC's new report on climate change mitigation makes some pretty clear statements about the changes that will have to be made to our energy mix - starting now - if we want to avoid climate disaster.

There are five key takeaways on energy supply in its Summary for Policymakers:
  1. Low- or no-carbon electricity (renewables, nuclear, and CCS-equipped fossil fuel plants) must increase from the current share of 30% to more than 80% by 2050.
  2. Fossil fueled power plants without CCS must be phased out entirely by 2100.
  3. Switching power plants from coal to natural gas can reduce GHG emissions "significantly" in the short term - if methane emissions are "low or mitigated." That's a big - and growing - "if." But any growth in natgas-fired power plants must reverse itself and fall below current levels by 2050, and be phased out by 2100. (See #2.) Natgas-fired electricity has a future only with CCS.
  4. Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) could provide "large-scale" net negative emissions power, but the large-scale use of biomass is both a "challenge" and a "risk." Big ones, I think.
  5. Any way you slice it, CCS is an essential technology.
Is the world capable of demanding and making these changes - in time?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Carbon negative biomass energy? Not so fast.

The recent release of the latest IPCC report on climate disruption mitigation has attracted some attention for the potential – if not likely – need, given our unrelenting increase in carbon pollution, to turn to a suite of unproven technologies that are theoretically designed to be carbon-negative. Those technologies would, proponents claim, actually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. One of these technologies is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

BECCS may work in Australia, according to one study. But could it work elsewhere? Is it sustainable? Could the natural resource base - forests that are harvested and other lands that are converted to biofuel crops - support BECCS without further ecological harm? Could trees be burned for fuel on industrial scale without hurting forest health or the ability of forests to regenerate?

Not, at least, in Penn's Woods.

When I was in state service at DCNR, I led the development of a carbon management plan for Pennsylvania (issued in 2008, and since removed - along with a large number of other carbon/climate-related documents - from the DCNR website, in a move that speaks volumes about the ideology of the current Administration). I also represented Governor Ed Rendell on the Chesapeake Bay Biofuels Advisory Panel, which did excellent work. 

The DCNR carbon plan looked in detail at the issue of biomass energy. It found: 
Under the most optimistic available projections for annual sustainable biomass supply (6 million tons/ year statewide), if all of that supply was harvested (ignoring availability and accessibility issues) and was used for electricity production, using in-state biomass for this option will offset 13% of existing electricity demand in PA. Similarly, if all of the estimated sustainable biomass supply (6 million tons/ year) was used for cellulosic ethanol production, 6% of PA‘s annual transportation fuel demand would likely be met with ethanol produced in-state. 
The Commonwealth’s biomass resources and the potential sources of plantation biomass are diffused over a large patchwork landscape. Estimates of total biomass volume based on sustainability are likely to prove optimistic when accounting for management limitations and economic considerations (transportation, fuel costs, access, competing markets for low-value wood). 
Market forces will determine the availability of wood and the impact on competing uses and users. The data...strongly suggest that the sustainability of large-scale operations that require huge volumes of feedstock annually is far from certain.  However, a large group of locally focused/financed small projects spread widely across the Commonwealth could capture both the value of replacing high-cost fuel imports and significant carbon benefits while also limiting transportation costs of the feedstock. A local energy generation model has potential to allow displacement of significant quantities of current or projected fossil carbon emissions across a broad spectrum of users – industry, public institutions, commercial offices, and multi-family buildings – through reduced electrically-driven cooling, replacement of fossil fuel-based heat, and distributed generation of electricity through combined heat and power facilities. 
Such an approach offers significant possibilities for decentralized, economically and environmentally sustainable rural economic development through community-based independent power production. Further, small-scale projects, when deployed across the Commonwealth, can cumulatively provide significant emissions offsets that are at least comparable to those that may be afforded by a lesser number of large-scale projects (e.g. cellulosic ethanol utilizing forest resources) while providing considerable co-benefits – energy independence (keeping energy dollars very local), taxpayer savings, rural economic opportunity, maximizing carbon sequestration in the local forests, and improved water quality, habitat and biodiversity. A detailed analysis of this model is beyond the work of [this report], but the concept merits serious consideration for policymakers, communities, energy practitioners, and energy users. 

In essence, even with the development of plantations of short rotation woody crops to supplement forest harvesting, in a heavily-forested state like Pennsylvania, large-scale BECCS to replace current fossil-fueled generation capacity would almost certainly lead to large scale deforestation. We must grow - not harvest - the lungs of the planet. Forests are not fuel. And when it comes to biomass energy – with or without CCS – small is beautiful. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Drilling shale gas wells may be a huge methane emission source - UPDATED

The act of drilling shale gas wells could be a huge - and hugely underestimated - source of methane emissions, according to a new study of drilling in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found methane emission rates from a handful of well pads to be 100 to 1,000 times higher than EPA estimates.

This LA Times story and this report from StateImpactPA are must-reads, the latter pointing out that EPA has also just published five white papers on air emissions from the oil and natgas sector for public review.  

The industry response to the latest study was to shoot the messenger.

Obviously, the science is not yet conclusive, and more work needs to and is being done. But this is a very big deal that appears to be getting bigger with closer scrutiny. It's also increasingly clear that existing (and not yet fully operational) Federal regulations on methane emissions - while very good - may not be nearly thorough enough or tough enough. 

The hard look at methane emissions from the oil and gas sector that the Obama Administration has promised may need to be a whole lot harder.

April 23 update:  This piece on the PNAS study by the New York Times' Andrew Revkin is essential reading. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tick, tick, tick...

Global greenhouse gas emissions grew nearly twice as fast over the past decade as in the previous 30 years.  Yet, the IPCC’s new report on climate change mitigation says that there is still a narrow window of time in which the world can avoid climate disaster without ruining the economy.

IPCC says that the next 15 years are crucial in determining whether we can reign in global climate disruption without extreme costs

The challenge is clear, daunting, and huge. We must decarbonize the global economy entirely by 2100.

What will that take?

This Bloomberg piece is a succinct summary of what the world needs to do - starting now - to avert climate disaster:  
The world needs to triple the energy it gets from renewables, nuclear reactors and power plants that use emissions-capture technology to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, United Nations scientists said.
Investments needed to keep climate change within safe limits would shave a fraction of a percent off annual global growth... A delay in stemming rising greenhouse gases will cut chances to limit the global temperature increase, add to costs and lead to increasingly reliance on unproven technologies, they said...
“Substantial reductions in emissions would require large changes in investment patterns,” the scientists wrote. A 2-degree scenario would involve “more rapid improvements of energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply” by 2050...
In financial terms:  
The International Energy Agency estimated last year that the power industry needs to invest $17 trillion from 2013 through 2035 to satisfy rising electricity demand. Investments made now in new fossil fuel-fired plants have implications for future emissions because they last for decades, it says.
To meet the 2-degree goal, annual spending on fossil fuel plants must drop by $30 billion a year by 2030, the panel said. Annual expenditure on renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage must rise by $147 billion, and spending on energy efficiency measures for transportation, buildings and industry needs to increase by $336 billion, it said.
We must change our energy mix, starting now.  An investment regime directed to low- or no-carbon energy will grow the global economy - in the worst case, only slightly slower than business as usual.

There is a role for natural gas (and even coal), done right - and that must include CCS - and CCUS - and policies that leverage gas to drive renewable energy deployment.  But time for fossil fuels - and for all of us - is running out without them.

We have been racing like lemmings towards the climate abyss. There is still a very small amount of time to turn towards safety. What will our children and grandchildren say of us?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ohio faults fracking for quakes

The risk of man-made earthquakes related to hydraulic fracturing has been largely connected to the disposal of the resulting wastewater via deep well injection.  Fracking itself has been identified as the cause of quakes in perhaps two cases.
That changed last week.
State geologists in Ohio investigated five tremors that occurred in March – including a 3.0-magnitude earthquake on March 10 - in the Youngstown area. They found that fracking in the Utica Shale may have increased pressure on a small, unknown fault and triggered the quakes.
The state has issued regulations that are one of the first significant regulatory steps aimed at limiting the possibility of seismic events related to unconventional oil and gas development. Those regs are also being called among the nation's strictest:
Under the new permit conditions, all new drilling sites in Ohio within 3 miles of a known fault or seismic activity of 2.0 magnitude or higher will be conditioned on the installation of sensitive seismic-monitoring equipment. Results will be directly available to regulators…so the state isn't reliant on drilling operators providing the data voluntarily.
If seismic activity of 1.0 magnitude or greater is felt, drilling will be paused for evaluation. If a link is found, the operation will be halted.

Will other oil and gas-producing states follow Ohio’s lead and take these prudent new steps to protect public safety?