‘Carbon Capture Is the Theranos of the Energy Industry’

Trying to capture carbon from emissions doesn’t work, says Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford. Put the resources into switching to renewables and go plant a tree, he urges

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Activists of the environmental organisation Greenpeace project a slogan that reads "No Future in Fossil Fuels" on the cooling tower of RWE coal power plant, one of Europe's biggest electricity companies in Neurath, north-west of Cologne, Germany, November 10, 2017
Greenpeace projected slogan 'No Future in Fossil Fuels' on the cooling tower of RWE coal power plant, Neurath (2017)Credit: Wolfgang Rattay/REUTERS
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The idea of capturing carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions sounds good — but it doesn’t work, argues a leading figure in the decarbonization debate. Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University says all carbon capture achieves is to drive up air pollution even more.

“Carbon capture is the Theranos of the energy industry,” Jacobson tells Haaretz, referring to the “revolutionary” blood-diagnostics startup now better known as “the scam of the century.”

Rats driving carsCredit: YouTube

Even rats like to drive cars, it turns out. So we’re in good company. Unlike the rodent, though, we know about the causes and dangers of climate change. Yet we resist replacing our sedans with a better shoe. It is even a common delusion in the Middle East that global warming isn’t a problem thanks to air-conditioning. Of course, among many other problems, power stations may shut down just when we need them most — during heat waves — but let’s move on.

Globally, most power generation still relies on fossil fuel and most cars still run on gasoline. Coal still powers 35 to 40 percent of electricity generation worldwide, and China for one is planning even more coal plants. In Israel, 25 percent of the grid is coal-fired, the Israel Electric Corporation tells Haaretz.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says carbon capture and storage or use, and synthetic direct air carbon capture and storage, are helpful technologies for avoiding global warming. But their efficacy hadn’t been studied.

Europe's largest lignite power plant, Belchatow, PolandCredit: Czarek Sokolowski / AP

“All sorts of scenarios have been developed under the assumption that carbon capture actually reduces substantial amounts of carbon. However, [my] research finds that it reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions — and it usually increases air pollution,” says Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Even if you have 100 percent capture from the capture equipment, it is still worse, from a social cost perspective, than replacing a coal or gas plant with a wind farm, because carbon capture never reduces air pollution and always has a capture equipment cost. Wind replacing fossil fuels always reduces air pollution and never has a capture equipment cost,” he adds.

Meanwhile, in Texas 

As the world careens toward tipping points, we can’t afford to grasp at imaginary straws. We are not going to be saved from ourselves by benevolent aliens; we are not going to colonize Mars. And our fossil fuel addiction is not going to be rendered harmless by carbon capture, as the professor explains in Energy and Environmental Science.

The energy industry promotes capture mainly in order to perpetuate itself, he claims, stressing that the emissions aren’t just from power plants, industry and cars: the process of fuel exploration and mining is also energy-intense.

In his latest paper, Jacobson examined the only two coal-fired power plants in the world to actually use carbon capture: one in Texas and one in Canada. The one is worse than the other, he says. To compound the irony, because carbon capture is so expensive, the only way for the companies to recoup their costs is to sell the carbon dioxide back to the oil industry.

The Texan plant pipes the carbon to a nearby oil field, where it gets pumped underground to reduce the density of the oil so more can rise toward the surface for extraction. During that process, some of the carbon dioxide being pumped into the ground leaks back to the air; some of the rest goes into the oil and gets burned. So what have we here? Even more global warming.

Offshore wind farm, Hartlepool, EnglandCredit: Frank Augstein/AP

“It isn’t even clear if any carbon dioxide is actually being captured,” Jacobson says. “There is no evidence that any CO2 is being captured and sequestered in the ground. And they have no proof whatsoever that it stays in the ground.”

His conclusion: Don’t waste resources on carbon capture. Just stop emitting. Pour the resources into replacing all fossil fuel use with renewable sources. The Stanford team even devised ways for a number of countries, including the United States and Israel, to become 100 percent renewable. His work has its critics, some noting the heavy necessary investment. But Jacobson stands firmly behind his recommendation.

Greenhouse gas gimmickry

Carbon capture and storage involves trapping carbon dioxide at the source of emission and sequestering it, usually by burial underground. But the technology is inefficient, the emitter keeps emitting and, thus, carbon capture from emissions is actually carbon positive.

“The problem is it doesn’t work. There are multiple problems that need solving: global warming, air pollution, mortality and energy security,” Jacobson explains. “Because additional equipment is required to run carbon capture from coal or gas, and it requires energy, all you’re doing is increasing the amount of coal and gas you need to run the equipment — and it costs more as well, and also results in more air pollution,” he adds.

Natural hot water from 6,600-foot depth: Geothermal power is also carbon-free renewable.Credit: AP
Installing solar power on glacial lake outburst alert system, Plaine Morte Glacier, Canton of Bern, SwitzerlandCredit: Ethan Welty /Aurora Creative /

One could power the carbon capture by wind energy rather than gas, but the efflux of the power plant is still carbon positive. Also, if one suggests powering carbon capture by wind, why not go the whole hog and replace the coal entirely, he says.

“Carbon capture is a gimmick by the energy industry to allow the fossil fuel industry to persist into the future,” Jacobson sums up.

What about capturing carbon from vehicle exhaust? In 2008, noting that nano-polluters account for about two-thirds of global CO2 emissions (a third being from cars), the European Union looked at capturing carbon straight from the exhaust pipe. That doesn’t work either, though Georgia Institute of Technology Prof. Andrei Fedorov — who worked on CO2 capture from mobile and distributed sources — explains that the issue is too multifaceted to be boiled down into one word (“No”).

His research group at the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering developed potential solutions for capture from mobile and small-scale emitters, Fedorov tells Haaretz. But translating an academically viable concept into practical solutions requires the resources and expertise of industry.

“Unfortunately, while we have had continuous interest from various industrial players in the U.S. and Europe (not much for transportation, but for distributed power generation from natural gas with CO2 capture), no serious commitments on system development and demonstration have been realized yet,” Fedorov says. “There are many reasons for this unfortunate status quo. … In large part, it is because there is no robust cap and trade market that would force companies to seriously invest in developing and deployment of such technologies.”

What if we all switch to electric cars? Lovely, if we also switch all power plants to renewables. If we charge the cars using electricity generated by fossil-fuel fired plants, all we’re achieving is relocating the smog.

Solar power in Saudi ArabiaCredit: רויטרס

Jacobson, on the other hand, insists that electric cars are better anyway because they are far more efficient vis-à-vis their energy consumption than gasoline-powered cars.

“The fact is that even if you did power electric cars with coal and gas, it’s still far better than have them emit exhaust,” he argues. It would reduce one’s total energy needs versus continuing to use gasoline.”

He also notes that city folk inhale roughly 30 times more car exhaust than emissions from power plants (facilities like Tel Aviv’s Reading power station smack in the middle of the city aren’t the rule). So even if your electric car charges from coal-fired power, you are reducing smog and improving smog-related morbidity.

Aren’t new carbon capture technologies being developed that could resolve all these ills? The conceptual problem is that the whole goal of carbon capture is to reduce one chemical, which requires energy. “So no matter what technology is made, it will always be worse than replacing the coal or gas in the first place,” Jacobson says, period. You want to capture carbon? Go plant a tree.

‘100 percent renewable is doable’

Geothermal power plant built by Israeli company Ormat in Olkaria, KenyaCredit: Ormat

Even assuming we would all agree to forgo foreign travel for fun and flying fruit around the world, to even hope to constrain global warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial norms, all fossil fuel must be replaced with renewable energy, Jacobson concludes.

As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reach concentrations not seen in over 3 million years, the global trajectory is still for an increase of 5 degrees Celsius and up. Some argue that it’s already too late to curb temperature rise, because temperature reacts at a delay to changes in carbon dioxide concentrations. Leaving that ghastly possibility aside, the best way to curb greenhouse gas emissions would be to stop. Emitting. Them.

It is possible. Several countries have achieved or are nearing 100 percent renewable energy, Jacobson says, including Norway and Iceland (which taps geothermal energy and wind). A key problem with renewables had been how to store power for future use. That is being solved in various innovative ways, Jacobson says.

For example, Denmark and Sweden use seasonal heat storage. Water heated by solar power in summer can be stored in aquifers or boreholes for use in winter, he explains.

Sharing is also crucial to the concept. When nations can make energy on sunny, windy days, they sell it to the grid; when it’s dark and the air is still (Germany, eyes on you), they buy power from the grid. Of course, that might work in amiable Europe. The only fuels we’d send each other in the Middle East would already be on fire.