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Carbon Capture and Storage: Part of the 'Silver Buckshot' on Climate Change?

The future role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) was a featured topic at this year's Society of Environmental Journalists Conference. WRI’s Sarah Forbes provided an overview of CCS technologies and how they could be brought to scale to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal.

“Coal is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to the energy revolution,” said author Jeff Goodell at the SEJ conference’s opening plenary. Coal provides for half of the U.S. electricity supply, making it difficult to eliminate coal as power source in the near term. Yet carbon dioxide emissions—particularly those from coal-fired power plants--need to come down as soon as possible to protect ourselves from the worst effects of climate change.

Forbes, a Senior Associate and CCS Specialist at WRI, tackled these issues on the panel “Carbon Sequestration: Silver Bullet or Black Hole?” “We don’t have the luxury to rule out the one technology that applies to coal,” she told the audience.

The main obstacle to CCS is the additional expense companies would face to compress, transport, store and monitor the CO2. But there’s “great uncertainty” about how high these costs would be, Sarah said, adding that the total cost is expected to come down once demonstration projects ramp up.

Bruce Braine, a Vice President at American Electric Power, conceded that “CCS is expensive” and we “need to overcome the economic hurdle.” And to do so, Braine argued, the government needs to fund “several” demonstration projects to begin a “learning- by-doing” process that can start to bring down costs.

Second, the panel agreed that the government needs to establish proper rules and regulations before companies can begin construction of larger CCS projects.

WRI has been working with more than 80 stakeholders to develop proper guidelines for CCS. The guidelines are meant to help policymakers and those involved in the CCS industry ensure that full-scale demonstration projects are conducted responsibly. WRI will release the guidelines on Tuesday, October. 28th.

Sarah also noted that carbon capture technology isn’t just for coal plants. Rather, CCS “can apply to any industrial source of CO2,” including natural gas plants, cement factories and biorefineries.

In the end, Sarah concluded, CCS is “not a silver bullet,” but with its full-scale deployment, we might have enough silver buckshot "to make a difference" in lowering CO2 emissions.

WRI has noted the many challenges—both technical and legal—that will make large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) difficult. For instance, integrated CCS systems at scale will require supporting pipeline infrastructure, storage facilities, and monitoring facilities. Constructing this infrastructure will involve a significant amount of capital investment over a 20-50 year period of time.

But despite these challenges, CCS appears at this point to be the most promising approach to addressing emissions from coal-fired power generation. Therefore, the U.S. government should invest immediately in demonstration projects that can be scaled up for use in the U.S. and around the world. Learn more about WRI’s work on CCS here and here.

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