Against the backdrop of the warming, changing climate of our planet Earth, energy decisions are being influenced in many ways. Some by reasoned discussion about what’s possible, or at the other end of the spectrum, a pitched warning about precisely when the world will end. As is often the case, the answers – or at least the consideration set of potential answers – is likely to be found in between.
The catalyst driving those choices is carbon. It’s a component of the “greenhouse gasses” identified as heat-trapping agents that are warming the planet, and some claim it’s the enemy that must be eliminated if the world is to be saved. Given that every energy source has environmental impact – including release of carbon dioxide or other compounds sometime during its life cycle – it stands to reason that we should be working within what are incredibly complex energy systems to minimize carbon emissions from every source. Period.
The practical reality is that there will be no wand that waves away our existing energy infrastructure and replaces it with wind and solar power. We can do ourselves a favor by acknowledging that all energy sources utilize some form of carbon or have other environmental effects, as discussed below. This would run counter to the argument by some that wind and solar power are the only acceptable choices, but it also would free us to focus investment and innovation initiatives to mitigate a range of environmental impacts from energy use.
We can – and are – working successfully to bring our economic and environmental interests into better alignment via de-carbonization innovation. It’s time for a closer look into the paradox of fossil fuel versus wind and solar; if carbon is the problem, why not decarbonize all energy sources and retain other benefits such as energy density and efficiency, affordability and abundance?
Power Generation Innovation
The energy industry has been working on advanced power generation innovations for decades.
Consider a natural gas power plant with no carbon emissions or air pollution. These exist today courtesy of the Allam Cycle, which is the process for converting natural gas into mechanical power, while capturing the generated CO2 and water. The first Allam Cycle plant from Net Power is located 30 miles outside of Houston and can produce 25 megawatts of electricity, enough to power all the homes in a medium-size town simultaneously. This Texas plant cost $150 million to build and the price of running it will be on par with that of a conventional power plant. The goal is to make it cheaper than current systems - so cheap that China and India will choose it and developing nations will be able to afford it.
Another alternate form of electric production is through fuel cells, which cleanly and efficiently convert chemical energy from hydrogen-rich fuels into electrical power and high-quality heat via a process that emits water rather than pollutants since there is no combustion of the fuel. In April 2019, FuelCell Energy, Inc. announced its advanced and flexible solid oxide fuel cell project in Pittsburgh.
Carbon capture is another promising technology through which an estimated 90 percent or more of CO2 emissions from power plants and industrial facilities can be captured. Captured CO2 can be put to productive use in enhanced oil recovery and the manufacture of fuels, building materials, and more, or sequestered in underground geologic formations.
CO2 is naturally captured from the atmosphere through biological, chemical, and physical processes. Artificial processes have been devised to produce similar effects, including large-scale, artificial capture and sequestration of industrially produced CO2 using subsurface saline aquifers, reservoirs, ocean water, aging oil fields, or other carbon “sinks.” Almost two dozen commercial-scale carbon capture projects are operating around the world with 22 more in development. Carbon capture alone can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050.
Hydropower is another option to generate decarbonized energy. The University of Pittsburgh has signed a letter of intent to purchase 100 percent of the power from a new hydroelectric plant to be built on Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River at the existing Allegheny Lock and Dam No. 2. This low-impact hydro plant will be the first of eight potential hydropower facilities planned to capture energy from Pittsburgh’s abundant water resources.
Solar energy is a renewable energy alternative that does not produce CO2 emissions, but we still need to consider that its environmental footprint extends beyond the free and abundant fuel source. There are toxic materials and chemicals used to make the photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity, and each panel is protected with a micro-thin layer of plastic film, produced from natural gas. And there are serious questions about the environmental impact of solar panels when they reach the end of a 20-30-year lifespan. Those materials will have to be separated out and disposed of or recycled, and we should be having a discussion about how to address those life cycle impacts.
Wind energy is an energy alternative that also does not emit CO2; however, it can have adverse impacts on the environment, including the potential to reduce, fragment, or degrade habitat for wildlife, fish, and plants. Spinning wind turbine blades can also pose a threat to flying wildlife like birds and bats. Many turbines, also, are made of carbon-based materials or composites that make recycling difficult. And public concerns about noise and visual impact on the landscape are additional factors that communities face in evaluating the environmental footprint of wind power generation.
Thoughtful consideration of the facts behind our energy choices should replace what’s become a highly-politicized exercise in misinformation and fear-mongering. If carbon is the issue, let’s put our best minds and resources behind solving it across the energy and fuel spectrum. We’re developing the technologies that will shape the future, when a mix of energy sources must serve the world’s ever-growing appetite for computing power, mobility, heating, cooking, cooling and more. The choice is clear: we can continue wasting electrons on a political argument, or we can focus our attention and resources on innovation that decarbonizes all our energy sources.