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Carbon Capture Gets a Starring Role in the Energy Future

Credit: Wikipedia

By Llewellyn King

In the ’70s and ’80s, black was gold. Coal was king.

Coal in tandem with nuclear were to be the white knights of the United States, as we struggled with the Arab oil embargo, price-gouging by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and declining oil production at home.

In 1977, the fledgling Department of Energy declared natural gas a “depleted” resource. Today, it battles with solar for cost advantage. The technology of fracking changed everything. Never forget technology’s possible revolutionary impact.

Solar and wind -- today’s energy darlings -- were struggling as the National Laboratories sought to make them workable. Solar was thought to have its future in mirrors concentrating heat on “power towers”. Wind was regarded with skepticism; even the shape of the towers and blades was in flux.

Everything that moved would be electrified. Nuclear would be used to make electricity. Coal would be burned as a utility and industrial fuel, and it would be gasified and liquified for transportation and other uses.

Environmentalists were pushing coal as an alternative to nuclear, which they were convinced was dangerous: In the United States it has cost no lives, but gas and oil in various ways have taken their toll.

Coal and nuclear were bright stars in a dark sky.

In 1974, at the White House, Donald Rice, who later ran the Rand Corporation, speculated in an interview with me on whether there might be oil and gas in the Southern Hemisphere, then considered unlikely and now, with production in South America and South Africa, a game-changer. Beware of the conventional wisdom.

All of this came flooding back at an extraordinary summit on global energy horizons convened in Washington recently by Dentons, the world’s largest law firm with offices in 79 countries. By pulling in lawyers from Uzbekistan to London, Dentons’ summit was able to fit America’s energy transformation into the global reality.

Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, laid out a picture that is sobering. He said that by 2040, the world would be pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than today notwithstanding dramatic actions to curb burning fossil fuels in North America, Europe and China. The problem is the growth in demand for electricity in what is being called the “Global East,” where new coal plants are coming online in China, India and Indonesia among other countries. This despite all deploying solar and wind, and India and China having aggressive nuclear growth plans. The electricity need in the region is great and fuel solution is fossil, mostly coal.

Enter Ernest Moniz. The former secretary of energy who now heads his own think tank, Energy Futures Initiative, is a passionate backer of carbon capture use and storage. Moniz, also an adviser to Dentons, is laying out a whole scenario of “carbon capture from air” that is persuasive. It is part of his newly unveiled “Green Real Deal.”

Having chaired two carbon capture conferences, I have wondered why the technology, which gets more sophisticated all the time, has not been embraced by coal producers with vigor. They have been cooler than the utilities who somewhat favor the technology.

Clinton Vince, chair of Dentons’ U.S. Energy practice and co-chair of the firm’s global Energy sector, reminded the summit of the global importance of nuclear, now shunned in the United States for cost reasons. He sees nuclear as vital to climate goals around the world.

Unlike the ’70s and early ’80s, there is no shortage of energy. The challenges are in how clean it can get; how it can be stored, if it is electricity; and how fast technology can change the energy equation -- as it has over the past four decades -- to save the climate without restricting economic growth.

The commodity that is in truly short supply is time.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is



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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 11, 2019 4:46 pm GMT

Llewellyn, carbon capture can't be assigned a starring role in our energy future until it exists.

Currently it's a far-fetched fantasy, hatched by enterprising oil companies, presumably as a means to justify their ongoing exploitation of global resources at the expense of global environment.

If I've somehow missed the discovery of an underground reservoir large enough to accomodate the 37 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted by combustion of fossil fuels each year, and the technology/means necessary to transport it there, and the technology necessary to keep it there forever, please share.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 12, 2019 12:15 pm GMT

Unlike the ’70s and early ’80s, there is no shortage of energy. The challenges are in how clean it can get; how it can be stored, if it is electricity; and how fast technology can change the energy equation -- as it has over the past four decades -- to save the climate without restricting economic growth

This is a great framing of how the priorities and issues have changed over the years. It's pretty obvious, but with the utility industry that tends to be slower moving it's important to remember what conditions past decisions were made under and how those differ than today's. 

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Aug 12, 2019 2:52 pm GMT

Llewellyn - your review of past assumptions is great and correct.  We always seem to believe that our current predictions have a great level of accuracy even over long trends.  With respect to coal, nuclear and carbon capture, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) had a 2006 presentation on the energy future that included gas at $6/MMBTU being the most expensive of IGCC, Nuclear and Coal.   By 2010 gas was under $5 and with some short periods - we all know the story.  

In the US our ability to implement new generation technology is severely limited by two factors (1) cost - our electricity is very cheap; and (2) time - it takes time to develop, implement and rollout new technology.   The renewable segment in the US has had over 25 years (the production tax credit was first authorized in 1992) to roll out primarily wind and now solar projects.  Now this technology is contributed to problem 1 - low cost and investors are confident that their returns can be met. 

Carbon capture has not had the time and now the large utility carbon sources are being shut down. The few large scale IGCC projects in the US have failed so the opportunities to do more are reduced.  So per your last comment, don't know that there is adequate time for Carbon Capture.  

Paul Chernick's picture
Paul Chernick on Aug 19, 2019 2:59 pm GMT

Carbon cature from air seems particularly challenging. Why not capture it from power plant and factory flue gas, where it is much more concentrated? I'm surprised that Moniz would go in that direction. Anyone have an insight?

As Bob points out below, you need to capture the CO2 and then do something with it. Apparently, you can inject it into fracked ballast, where it gets chemically bonded into the rock. In prinicple, you could use non-emitting energy (such as the excess from a solar/wind system built to serve load with minimal storage) to transform the CO2 into hydrocarbons, for use as fuel in the short term and as a construction material or other industrial feedstock in the longer term. I haven't seen any big advances along those lines.

Is CCS a cult, a scam, a delusion, or a brilliant insight?

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