Why the Carbon Capture Debate Matters to Manufacturers
Most of us agree that carbon in the atmosphere is one of the chief causes of climate change, but no one agrees on what to do about it. In the U.S., it’s estimated that 37 percent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) added to the atmosphere came from generating electricity from fossil fuels in 2013. Coal accounts for about half of that.
Eliminating coal-generated power would cause far-reaching repercussions, so a technology fix would be the ideal solution. There are high expectations for one technology in particular—carbon dioxide capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is an elaborate process that captures emissions from power plants, compresses the gases, and pipes them to a place—perhaps an oil field—where they can be stored deep underground. R&D funds are being pumped into labs and CCS demonstration power plants, and some of the funds are coming from taxpayers.
Last year was quite a ride for the CCS debate. Here are a few highlights:
January 2015: The National Coal Council (NCC) issued a report entitled Fossil Forward: Revitalizing CCS: Bringing Scale & Speed to CCS Deployment, energetically recommending investment in CCS.
February 2015: the Department of Energy (DOE) halted the FutureGen 2.0 clean coal project. The project aimed to retrofit a coal-fired power plant generator unit with a CCS system that would capture up to 90 percent of CO2 emissions. The Center For American Progress Action Fund was pleased by the move.
November 2015: At the request of the DOE, the NCC came back with another report on CSS investment, in favor of it.
December 2015: Challenging the very foundation of CCS expectations, two University of Michigan (UM) researchers said that the engineering calculations at the heart of cost estimates are flawed. They fail to fully account for the loop where running the CCS consumes additional energy that must be generated, producing more CO2 to be removed by the CCS. A new coal plant’s thermal efficiency without CCS is about 38 percent, and current estimates predict a decrease to 26 percent with CCS. The UM researchers say, with the feedback loop considered, efficiency would really reach only about 16 percent, causing higher costs than expected.
So, what does this mean to manufacturers?
Manufacturers, among the largest power users, need to be especially well informed. Major policy decisions will set the course for energy production far into the future. Pie-in-the-sky cost projections will affect business strategy decisions, and some manufacturers will want to step up to influence the debate.
Manufacturers are also better able than most to dig under the surface of assumptions about efficiency, effectiveness and related costs of competing technologies. Manufacturing leaders are often engineers or scientists themselves and, since manufacturing rests on scientific, engineering, and data analysis, those skills are already available in their organizations.
Penetrating the clouds of technical details underlying conflicting reports about the costs and benefits of power generation strategies is not something to leave to special interests that can pick and choose the data they like best. If the engineering and math are not solid, manufacturers are uniquely qualified to do so. Furthermore, the quality of efficiency estimates and cost projections will affect public policy decisions and large-scale investment in future power sources. Manufacturers have an interest in how we generate power in the future, balancing cost and the well-being of the planet.
Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.