Thinking Tech

$600 million to cut carbon emissions, with no end in sight

$600 million to cut carbon emissions, with no end in sight

Posting in Energy

Congressional investigators say the DOE should know more about the technologies it funds.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of Congress), the Department of Energy has been handing out money for technologies to cut carbon dioxide, our nation's chief greenhouse gas, without knowing how far away those technologies really are.

This lack of information creates problems for Congress, which is supposed to oversee the DOE's spending, along with utilities, the Environmental Protection Agency and others trying to set or abide by policies on climate change.

The GAO is focused on coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for a third of all carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. Power plant operators can try to capture and store the carbon they create as they burn coal, or they can learn to become more efficient so they burn less coal. Or they can do both.

GAO investigators looked at these two approaches and decided that while efficiency technologies are available now, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are still 10 to 15 years away -- although capture and storage techniques will remove far more carbon over time.

However, all of these technologies have problems. From the GAO:

...with respect to CCS (carbon capture and storage), stakeholders highlighted the large costs to install and operate current CCS technologies, the fact that large scale demonstration of CCS is needed in coal plants, and the lack of a national carbon policy to reduce CO2 emissions or a legal framework to govern liability for the permanent storage of large amounts of CO2.

With respect to efficiency improvements, stakeholders highlighted the high cost to build or upgrade such coal plants, the fact that some upgrades require highly technical materials, and plant operators’ concerns that changes to the existing fleet of coal power plants could trigger additional regulatory requirements.

Furthermore:

...both (approaches) could raise electricity costs and have other effects. According to reports and stakeholders, the successful deployment of CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies is critical to meeting the ambitious emissions reductions that are currently being considered in the United States while retaining coal as a fuel source. Most stakeholders told GAO that CCS would increase electricity costs, and some reports estimate that current CCS technologies would increase electricity costs by about 30 to 80 percent at plants using these technologies. DOE has also reported that CCS could increase water consumption at power plants.

In response, the DOE says that its Office of Fossil Energy will change its methods and develop a set of benchmarks to assess new technologies so it can report regularly to Congress on how mature they are. GAO investigators suggest using a tool developed by NASA, called TRLs (Technology Readiness Levels), that another part of DOE already uses to manage procurement.

Better information about which technologies work best to capture or halt carbon dioxide emissions, now and in the future, might get us better laws. Last week, for instance, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, introduced a bill to raise $20 billion over 10 years to subsidize technologies that can capture and store power plants' carbon emissions. Is this bill is a good idea? Do we know?

And in case you think Congressional investigators are being too hard on the DOE, check out this new series from the Washington Post on the billions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent since 9-11 on "Top Secret America" -- a huge, growing and largely classified effort to fight terror.

To me the Post stories are a case study of government spending run amok. Could the same thing happen in clean tech?

(Photo by arbyreed)

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure