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Looking Forward

Given the long developmental timeline of 30-50 years, it’s unlikely that any new and innovative technology to mitigate CO, emission growth will become available to end users prior to 2050. Few of the existing coal plants are likely to be retrofitted with carbon capture. The examples we have to date show both enormous costs, and significant loss of performance. These two hurdles by themselves would, in practical terms, disqualify them immediately based on any competing alternative (e.g., a combined cycle, or even a combined cycle with some measure of carbon capture). During this same period, we can expect very high growth rates of new coal thermal plants to come online, a fact that will likely accelerate the rapid growth in the atmospheric CO, burden.

We also know that some things that can be accomplished in the short term that would at mitigate some of this explosive growth, and potentially offset some of the predicted temperature increases.

  • CO, emissions mitigated by technology! choice. Maximizing the efficiency at the generation source has a significant impact on source emissions. CO, reductions have also been substantially lowered with improvements in end-user efficiency. Most notable here is the impact of the LED.
  • CO, emissions mitigated by fuel choice: Using methane (natural gas) where available and using this in a combined cycle would effectively meet the previously stated requirement. A gas fired thermal plant produces about 50% less CO, than the same unit operating on coal.
  • Where coal is in abundance, gasification and production of sym-gas will yield a gaseous fuel product compatible with any gas turbine. CO, production at the point of gasification can be dealt with as a separate challenge.
  • Additional renewables. This is an obvious choice being effectively free of CO,, but where renewables are dominant, retail power prices have shown a propensity to rise. Disconnecting the increase in power prices from choice of renewables would lower the barriers to increased usage, but energy storage, the ability to make energy available when it’s needed, and store when generation is in excess, is a major technology and economic gap. To date, we have not solved the “energy density” problem, where a simple hydrocarbon like kerosene stores forty tunes as much energy as the best batteries available. That situation continues to evolve, but landmark breakthroughs have yet to be realized.
  • Modular nuclear. Nuclear power’s cost challenge has been a nearly insurmountable hurdle, especially in open, competitive power markets. Much of this cost is associated with on-site construction and extremely long build intervals. A modular reactor design has the potential to transfer large portions of that build cycle back to the factory, where cost controls and construction times may result in a cost competitive design.

Meanwhile, since a gas-fired combined cycle yields about one thud of the carbon emissions of a thermal plant (see Figure 5). one solution to the vast buildup of thermal plants now happening would be the eventual phased conversion of many of the recent coal plants into natural gas combined cycles. Such a conversion process would likely take a decade, as a gas infrastructure would need to be co-developed in tandem.

Longer term

Longer term, new technologies, or improvements to existing ones, need to be introduced if we are to slow, or at least minimize the accelerating growth of greenhouse gases. These technologies need to address some of these critical issues:

  • • Commercialization of technologies that permit isolation of CO, without the use of chemical extraction methods, and without sacrificing efficiencies to insurmountable parasitic losses. Preliminary Oxy- Fuel designs are promising technology, but they are years away from commercialization and all new turbine orders for the next decade are either conventional gas turbines or steam turbines. The Oxy-Fuel design does have a head start in that existing turbine designs can be adapted to operate in this mode.
  • • Solutions to the disposition of CO,. Certainly not an easy objective. Simply using CO, for EOR only replaces CO, from the power sector with CO, from the transport and industrial sectors where the fuel is used. There are alternatives. For example, the Sabatier Process (Sabatier and Senderens, 1902; Borman, 2017) can process CO, and H, into CH4 and H,0, using a catalyst, and at high pressure. With the CO, already at high pressure, a source of hydrogen and a catalyst could provide one solution to disposing some of the CO,. The concept is being smdied to develop colonies on, of all places, Mars. One might expect a more receptive development here on earth (Junaedi, 2011). Finally, the underground storage of CO, in gigatonne quantities; we have only limited experience with any successful storage reservoirs. Whether this experience can be extrapolated on the scale required remains to be seen.
  • • Improved air separation technology. ASU systems that produce oxygen exhibit very long startup periods (hours if not days), while today’s gas turbines have startup periods measured in minutes. There is a total mismatch in timescales to place these two technologies in tandem. Chemical looping (Moghtaderi, 2012) is an example of a technology that solves the air separation challenge, while still retaining the capacity to isolate CO, in the exhaust like the Oxy-Fuel. Demonstration of this concept in a power generation example is, however, several decades away.
  • • Improved energy storage in the power sector. Mechanisms to better integrate intermittent supply from wind and solar generation, making the energy supply available as close to demand as possible. This is the ever elusive “better battery” somewhere over the horizon.
  • • Improved energy storage in the transport sector. Better battery storage technology will bring the mobile transport sector and the power sector closer together. Effectively increasing the efficiency of the end user, pror iding further mitigation.
  • • Integration of the transport and power generation sectors. Together, these two (power generation and transportation) comprise nearly 2/3rds of all CO, from anthropogenic sources. Current technology is promising, but energy storage capacity on the mobile side needs additional improvement, perhaps by as much as a factor of 2 or 3. In addition, storage needs to be achieved cost competitively, and with an emphasis on end-user safety. These are non-trivial leaps in technology and could represent a decade’s worth of research, but the financial rewards could easily translate to S100 billion annually.

In total, these advances could har e a substantial impact towards the goal of reducing CO, emissions from the power sector; but, as hinted early on, that developmental cycle must be navigated between a working concept and commercial deployment could be fifty years or more. So far, the only periods where CO, concentrations in the atmosphere have either slowed or reversed appear to be associated with economic downturns, not the application of innovative technologies. Whether current fuel and technology applications are sufficient to reverse any impact related to climate change remains unknown.

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