Carbon Capture: The Key Answer on Climate Change

Carbon Capture: The Key Answer on Climate Change
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Hard as it may be for many environmentalists to acknowledge, a technology that captures carbon dioxide emissions at coal plants needs to be a part of a global approach to carbon dioxide reduction.

It is a remarkable paradox: At a time when the rest of the world is looking toward America for leadership in combating global warming, the environmental movement refuses to accept the only technology that could make a real difference in reducing carbon emissions from coal and other fossil fuels that are the foundation of the global energy system.  Coal plants with carbon capture technology along with advanced nuclear reactors can reliably provide all of the electricity needed globally with little or no CO2 emissions.  These technologies will work in almost any region in the world. 

Those politicians and environmentalists who claim that coal is a relic of the past ignore its importance in this country and abroad.  Coal is the world’s leading fuel for electricity generation, providing nearly 40% of the world's electricity supply, and an even higher percentage in countries with fast-growing economies. For example, China last year added 40 GW of new coal-fired power capacity, more than four times the amount of coal capacity that was retired in the U.S. in 2020. 

The U.S. cannot lead on climate by writing off coal or other fossil fuels. As Senator Joe Manchin recently said, “you cannot eliminate your way to a cleaner climate, you can innovate your way, but not eliminate your way.”

It’s absolutely critical that U.S. energy policy recognizes that American climate leadership will come directly from coal country and advanced fossil fuel technologies along with innovative nuclear reactor designs. Unfortunately, Greens who claim to care the most about reducing emissions seem far more determined to boost wind and solar power than they do about producing replicable climate solutions that work both in the U.S. and abroad. The environmentalists are aided by financiers that earn enormous fees from financing solar and wind projects.  Despite generous subsidies and mandates for renewable energy, solar and wind power combined provide 10.7% of U.S. electricity in 2020. Globally, they supply even less – 7% of power. 

While wind and solar are growing, we must recognize that they are unreliable.  A recent Texas heat wave – which is common – prompted the local grid operator to ask Texans to conserve electricity.  A quick search of the Energy Information Administration’s data provides an explanation, wind generation was approximately a third of expectations.  Coal and nuclear production remained constant and natural gas generation increased by approximately 25 percent. This is a clear illustration of the need for reliable generation by fossil fuels and nuclear plants.

Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, has called carbon capture -- not wind or solar generation -- the "most vital" technology being developed to reduce emissions.  He and other energy experts understand that fossil fuels will remain mainstays of the global economy for decades to come. 

Using these fuels with cost-effective technologies to capture and utilize their emissions is just the kind of innovative, advanced energy system both the U.S. and the world need. The challenge now is to make carbon capture a key part of a portfolio of solutions to decrease emissions.  

Growing concern about climate change is an opportunity for a reality check in the debate over how to slow the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.  It brings into sharp focus the most pressing challenge: Can it be done fast enough, cheaply enough and on a sufficient scale without carbon capture? The answer is simply no.

President Biden has said we must double down on federal investments and enhance tax incentives for carbon capture. He’s absolutely right and West Virginia should become a hub for development and the deployment of the technologies the world needs.

There is simply no credible way to address the climate challenge without becoming more practical about the way we generate electricity and the need for carbon capture. This shouldn't be a secondary piece of the solution to reduce global emissions but rather right at the heart of the effort. 

Dan Ervin, PhD, is a Professor of Finance in the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. 

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