Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Capturing Carbon and Dollars:

Mechanical and Biological Paths


Roy Morrison

Our recent business-friendly Trump tax cut extravaganza now makes capturing carbon emissions from fossil fuels probably economical by paying $30 dollars a ton for carbon capture and storage. Compared to pollution and ecocide-as-usual this may be a good idea, as suggested by MIT Technology Review on April 25th.

Financial engineering has finally opened the door for carbon capture and storage. Tax subsidies for carbon capture are now part of our latest corporate-friendly tax overhaul. The credit under U.S. Code 45Q Credit for Carbon Sequestration would provide $30 a ton benefit for the first 75 million metric tons of sequestered carbon or $2.25 billion. This could be the start of something big. A $30 dollar a ton tax credit subsidy for carbon dioxide capture and storage (CSS) means the cash registers are ringing. Wall Street is mobilized.

Fossil fuel plants generate huge amounts of carbon dioxide by weight, because one atom of carbon combines with two atoms of oxygen. This means an average of 1.2 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of fossil fuel electricity. A thousand megawatt fossil fuel plant at 70% capacity factor would produce 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

At $30 a ton, this means $111 million dollars in tax equity a year. Every year. Not a onetime thing like the solar investment tax credit (ITC). For solar, tax equity investors who take advantage of the 30% solar energy ITC are typically cash-rich insurance companies or family offices, the quaint term for the administrators of the wealth of the very rich, who want to avoid taxes and make even more money without lifting a finger. Power plant owners may have requisite tax appetite to take advantage of carbon capture tax credits themselves, so the tax credit is a direct benefit to these companies and their stockholders.

Allegedly, this tax subsidy will lead to decreasing costs and will phase out. Allegedly. But history suggests otherwise in particular in regard to fossil fuel subsidies and with this one supported by coal miners and environmentalists alike. And both Wall Street and Technology Review believe that scouring carbon from the air is inevitably to follow if we are to save ourselves.

It is certainly better paying polluters not to poison as much to avoid ecological catastrophe, mass extinction and an end to what we call advanced “civilization”.

Dodging the Threat of Stranded Assets by Fighting Climate Change

Globally, coal plants are being shut down because they are simply not competitive with renewables and natural gas. The greatest threat to the fossil fuel imperium is the increasing inability to compete with zero fuel cost renewables combined with limitations on unabated carbon dioxide pollution to save us from ecological catastrophe.

We should understand that by adding carbon-capture subsidies to keep fossil fuels economic and ecologically tolerable is also very much about preserving the trillions of dollars in anticipated value of coal and oil in the ground by subsidizing zero or low enough emitting fossil fuel combustion. This is guaranteed to warm the hearts of the Koch Brothers, Exxon Mobil, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and OPEC. It also preserves the value of millions of dollars of fossil fuel generation and heating plants that are becoming stranded assets in face of renewable competition.

Utility plant is still the largest global agglomeration of machine capital all of which is likely to be abandoned in the face of increasingly cheap wind, solar and storage batteries. Hawaii, for example, committed to 100% renewable power, has just passed a law mandating a completely new utility rate structure based not on power sales and plant investment, but on efficiency and making the system favorable for renewable development. Hawaii electric is getting out of the fossil fuel business and will make money as coordinator and facilitator of the renewable energy grid. Efficiency and distributed renewables are no longer threats to the utility bottom line, but the basis of profit. This is a crucial transformation that must be followed nationally and globally for real market incentives for a renewable energy future.

Right now the U.S. Department of Energy is attempting to provide subsidies without pollution mitigation in the name of “grid reliability” and “grid security” and subsidize coal and nuclear plants that cannot compete with renewables and with natural gas. That is the old time religion and has less than overwhelming support, since it benefits only a very few at the expense financially and ecologically of the many, and at the same time, severely damages existing competitive electricity markets in an exercise of lemon socialism. Ratepayers are supposed to pay more and be rewarded with nothing. These plants if non-economic are certainly for sale. To keep them open (which I oppose completely) they should be sold for pennies on the dollar to a willing buyer or shut down. Not one quarter more of fossil fuel subsidies.

Fossil fuels will not be able to compete with zero fuel cost renewables absent ever rising subsidies such as paying companies with tax credits or other emoluments for not polluting. This is all about maintaining the value of oil and coal assets in the ground by subsidy forever.

The essential market problem is driven by the nature of renewables and ecologically unsustainability of fossil fuels.

Sun, wind, water fuel cost is zero. And renewable capital cost continues to drop and efficacy continues to increase. This creates a problem in that to afford the costs of the fossil fuel chain and remain competitive, fossil fuel burners must receive an ever increasing amount of subsidy.

The notion advanced in Technology Review that an alleged incapacity of renewables in northern climates (“wind too strong”, “not enough sun”) is a fanciful, not data driven assertion. And one that’s used to justify an endless subsidy regime for fossil fuels.

Industrial Nostalgia

A coal museum now has solar panels. This is where the storied history of fossil fuels belongs, in a solar powered museum of the history of fossil fuel powered industrialism. The story of coal miners, of wildcatter, and roughnecks on oil rigs, of the Big Allis turbine on the Hudson (for Allis-Chalmers) powering N.Y. City. It’s “16 tons what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt.”

I once passed a course and became a certified steam boiler operator to improve my skills as institutional energy auditor. At the time, I was fascinated by the big machines with their maze of water tubes and explosion doors on the top to release pressure in case something went wrong. We burned sludgy , number 6 bunker oil plant that needed to be heated in order to be pumped into the combustion nozzles at the University of New Hampshire boiler plant.

Now the jobs are being created in the hundreds of thousands by solar and wind. The roughnecks can work on building and maintaining wind farms from prairie to the deep ocean. Every large wind farm is supported by a machine shop.

Scrubbing Carbon Dioxide from Atmosphere

MIT jumps from the glories of subsidizing carbon capture to suggest that mechanically removing carbon from the atmosphere will be almost certain to be needed next step. This is a motor head solution as opposed to using carbon sequestration from land and ocean biomass and soil. To choose the path to follow to reduce atmospheric carbon, to remove gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we should turn first to the power inherent in the biosphere to restore a favorable ecological balance.

It’s important to understand the Eocene Thermal Maximum (ETM) period of 55 million years ago. Driven by carbon dioxide and methane from volcanism, global temperatures soared on an ice free planet. The ETM extreme temperatures and carbon dioxide led eventually, in the open Arctic Ocean, to enormous plant blooms in the ocean that feasted on gigatons of CO2 on an overheated planet and helped establish the current carbon balance and de-acidify the oceans.

The deliberate growth and cultivation of sea plants such as kelp and duckweed and micro-algae forests is a key pathway to sequestered the gigatons of carbon to help reverse climate change and clash ocean acidity before it is too late. Huge and rapidly growing biomass can provide not just carbon sequestration, but food and energy through bio-methane potentially sufficient to replace all fossil fuels.

A chemical engineering study by Antoine de Ramon N‘Yeurta, “Negative Carbon via Ocean Afforestation,” estimated that ocean plants can solve our global climate, energy, and food problems. Micro-algae forest covering 9% of ocean could produce enough bio-methane to replace all fossil fuels while removing 53 gigatons per year of carbon from the atmosphere and restoring preindustrial levels of carbon. The enormous growth of ocean biomass would also increase sustainable fish production sufficient to provide 440 pounds of protein per year for 10 billion people. There are related and enormously promising proposals for fast growing ocean plants like kelp and duckweed.

This would be an enormous undertaking, but it is driven by the use of the natural processes of plants in the ocean feeding on carbon dioxide and using photosynthesis to create enormous amount of biomass. It should be a matter of immediate attention before we decide the only choice is building millions of machines to attempt to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Let nature do it instead. The biosphere is a co-evolutionary system designed to restore a sustainable balance in the interest of life. Human choices to choose to employ the power of ocean biomass as opposed to legions of machines is another manifestation of sustainability.

The co-evolutionary forces of sustainability, the ecosphere responding to all influences in a fashion that reshapes the planet to support life in all its diversity will likely, as it has in the past, enable survival after the mass extinction of the Anthropocene. But it’s preferable for us acting quickly enough to avoid mass extinction.

Yes, we need a plan, in my view, eight four-year plans from 2018 to 2050 to get to a global carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of 21 gigatons per year (three tons of carbon per person per year (or less) as global standard for each us everywhere) combined with aggressive steps for carbon sequestration on land and sea in multi-gigatons per year level. Agriculture, forestry, aquaculture should be paid for carbon removal instead of subsidizing continued use of fossil fuels. At the very least, natural sequestration of carbon should be paid similar amounts as mechanical carbon capture.

Better to pay the devil some now and save ourselves from ecological catastrophe. The economics of renewables will provide clear global answers for climate change soon enough.

Roy Morrison’s latest book is Sustainability Sutra. He works on solar farms and dual-cropping for farmers to produce both food and renewable energy,


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