Turbo Speak: Capturing carbon

In August/September 2021's Turbo Speak column, Editor-in-Chief Drew Robb highlights the need for investment in natural gas carbon capture and storage.

Carbon capture has become a hot topic. After suffering for years from lack of funding, it is finally attracting investment. Capturing carbon from coal remains the focus. It should certainly be the priority outside the U.S. A study by Environmental Research Letters laid out the top ten hyper-polluting power plants in the world. It found that up to 49% of global electricity-based CO2 emissions could be eliminated by targeting these plants.

Out of 29,078 fossil-fuel powered plants from 221 countries, researchers found that 73% of carbon emissions come from the top 5% of polluters. The study suggests that targeting this top 5% with reforms could significantly reduce global emissions levels. It outlined some potential policies: lowering intensities to match a national, then international, average, switching to natural gas, and implementing carbon capture technology.

The results show that the implementation of these policies could reduce electricity-based CO2 emissions. South Korea, for example, could cut electricity-based CO2 emissions by a whopping 76%. China would reduce its CO2 output by only 20.7% due to the bulk of its coal plants being high polluters. Switching coal plants to natural gas would result in a 29.5% drop.

Investment in carbon capture at coal plants makes the most sense outside of the US, therefore. It would result in the biggest gains. Within the U.S., coal plants are firmly under the boot of regulators. Most have drastically reduced their emissions and are scheduled for closure.

That’s why it’s smarter for American dollars to be spent on carbon capture for natural gas plants, not coal. None of the top polluting coal plants are in the U.S. Almost all are in Asia, except for one Polish plant (the worst on the planet) and one in Germany. Yet U.S.-based carbon capture research is overwhelmingly funded for coal. The last time I heard someone from the Department of Energy mention Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS), coal project funding outdid natural gas by more than an order of magnitude.

CCUS COVER STORY

That appears to be changing. Our cover story summarizes the latest developments in CCUS. It gives a brief rundown of the technology, explains some of the challenges, and shares what the vendor community is doing about it.

A Baker Hughes paper, “CCUS is a net-zero imperative,” offers some insight. The company is investing heavily in CCUS. It sees it as the only way to address a major proportion of industrial emissions. The paper states that 25% of industrial emissions resulting from industries such as power generation, transportation, and cement production cannot be avoided by moving to alternative fuels as they come from industrial process activity. It concludes: “Without CCUS technology, it will be nearly impossible to remove emissions from large parts of the global economy.”

More investment and incentives are needed to overcome the cost premium for CCUS. Switching from coal to natural gas and adding carbon capture will probably have as much impact on carbon reduction as adding more renewables. It isn’t an either-or proposition. We need to do both – lower carbon emissions while steadily adding more wind and solar.

Perhaps in some fairyland, coal and gas plants will disappear overnight and the world will be happily powered ever after. But areas intent on that dream are struggling. California just had another summer of rolling blackouts. Now the governor has announced “temporary” plans to build gas plants to ease the state’s electricity crisis.

Investment in CCUS, therefore, makes sense. And it looks like the gas turbine OEM and supply chain community is rising to the challenge, as your can read in our latest issue.