Monday, May 04, 2009

CCS: Can we beat the offer?

We need to reduce the carbon output of of electrcity sector dramatically. Govornment and industry have been convinced that we the people arent going to back down on this point. So the question is: what are the solutions being offered? Nuclear power is on the table and as soon as it becomes economically feasible I'm sure british power companies will dispatch carrier-pigs to deliver the news to the department of energy and climate change. In the mean time, there are new ideas.

Offer #1 Is carbon capture and storage(CCS). Offer #1 promises many of the negatives of standard coal power with some added complications, a reduction in efficiency and a long term waste storage issue. On the positive side it can mitigate climate change at a cost somewhat lower than the construiction of hydrogen powered jet planes.

Offer #2 is a selection of renewables at any proportion up to around 20%. We are told that our highly ordered national grid can deal with a little of our idealism, a minor insurgency of these intermitent and imppractical sources of power can be accepted.

The more perceptive amongst you may have noticed that Offer #2 leaves atleast 80% of our decarbonisation undone. So the question is, can we beat CCS as a solution?

The bar seems to have been set rather low by this question. CCS plants would generally pollute more than coal, would use more water, would have higher capital requirements and more maintaince staff than coal. They would offer but one advantage: less carbon dioxide emitted. The idea that the world is going to move from one inneficient a polluting technology to an even less efficient and more polluting technology that costs more is a little hard to swallow.

From the outset we can name renewables which cause negligible degrees of air and water pollution as well as eliminating water consumption. We then have to look at costs, which for wind can be lower than standard coal already, and which will only go down with production capacity increases. Finally, we are left with intermitancy and the status quo. We have to find a way of dealing with intermitent sources of power. We also need to find a way of convincing people that whilst is it certain that the great majority of our present electricity is derived from fossil fuels it is not certain that even a small minority of our future electricity will be produced that way. This may seem like simple terrain for an overheated argument about CCS but much of it comes down to the presuposition of important bodies that 'coal is going to play an important part in our energy future' and a rising clamour of voices stating that 'incalcation does not amount to a solid argument'.

Coal power is always going to be cheaper than coal power with ccs simply because ccs adds several post combustion stages of transport and storage. No such argument can be made about renewables. Whilst coal-ccs can optimistically offer only power 'almost as cheap as we have now'
renewable energy integrated through a well interconnected smart grid can potentially offer cheaper, more customizable, power whilst brining numerous ancillary benefits.

Basic smart grid technology includes automatic load shedding, real time pricing and alternative contracts for different power qualities. Fridges and air conditioning and heating with smart chips can stop temporarily when the mains frequency changes, reducing strain during what could be dangerous peaks in demand. Pricing can vary with supply and demand on a minute by minute basis, allowing the savvy consumer to reduce electricity bills while saving the electricity companies large summs on deffered infrastructure investments. Large customers may be able to sign up to an ineruptable power supply, if short power cuts do not offer major difficulties large savings could be made in this way; as a pay off the grid company gains a large chunk of load that can be shed at times of peak demand. In the future it may also be possible to have certain crucial equipment on very high quality power, suprassing anything available today, whilst having less time dependent appliances on a standard releability tarrif. These basic demand side management tools can be complimented by various kinds of storage. Fly wheels, flow batteries, ultra-capacitors, compressed air energy storage, pumped storage; the list of storage technologies is extensive. Most of these are suitable only for short term voltage maintainence, not for making up significant gaps in power supply as may result from drops in wind or clouding over. Pumped storage is the exception, but sighting is limited to geologically sound mountainous regions. Compresed air energy storage may be suitable for significant energy provision untill a backup generation facility can be fired up.

If we dont want to fire up backup generation then we have to move from temporal to spatial coping mechanisms. Use of high voltage transmissions lines over large distances can help by both smoothing out the renewable energy resource supplies and by allowing for the inclusion of more distant storage supplies. Although there are numerous challenges to be overcome, it does seem likely that a smart grid system with long range high voltage lines does offer the potential for a cleaner, low carbon electricity system with reduced demand on water resources for less than the cost of coal with carbon capture and storage. So don't forget: 'coal is going to play no part in our energy future'.

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At 3:42 PM, Anonymous DrDeb said...

You wrote: "So the question is, can we beat CCS as a solution?"

An inventor found a way to create electricity from the energy expended by tourists spinning prayer wheels in Tibet:
Prayer as an alternative energy source.

His innovation suggests to me that we *can* beat CCS as a solution; we just need the innovation to do it!

Dr. Deb


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