Stanford study casts doubt on carbon capture

Stanford University

One proposed method for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere – and reducing the risk of climate change – is to capture carbon from the air or prevent it from getting there in the first place. However, research from Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University, published in Energy and Environmental Science, suggests that carbon capture technologies can cause more harm than good.

“All sorts of scenarios have been developed under the assumption that carbon capture actually reduces substantial amounts of carbon. However, this research finds that it reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution,” said Jacobson, who is a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Even if you have 100 percent capture from the capture equipment, it is still worse, from a social cost perspective, than replacing a coal or gas plant with a wind farm because carbon capture never reduces air pollution and always has a capture equipment cost. Wind replacing fossil fuels always reduces air pollution and never has a capture equipment cost.”

Jacobson, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, examined public data from a coal with carbon capture electric power plant and a plant that removes carbon from the air directly. In both cases, electricity to run the carbon capture came from natural gas. He calculated the net CO2 reduction and total cost of the carbon capture process in each case, accounting for the electricity needed to run the carbon capture equipment, the combustion and upstream emissions resulting from that electricity, and, in the case of the coal plant, its upstream emissions. (Upstream emissions are emissions, including from leaks and combustion, from mining and transporting a fuel such as coal or natural gas.)

Common estimates of carbon capture technologies – which only look at the carbon captured from energy production at a fossil fuel plant itself and not upstream emissions – say carbon capture can remediate 85-90 percent of carbon emissions. Once Jacobson calculated all the emissions associated with these plants that could contribute to global warming, he converted them to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide in order to compare his data with the standard estimate. He found that in both cases the equipment captured the equivalent of only 10-11 percent of the emissions they produced, averaged over 20 years.

This research also looked at the social cost of carbon capture – including air pollution, potential health problems, economic costs and overall contributions to climate change – and concluded that those are always similar to or higher than operating a fossil fuel plant without carbon capture and higher than not capturing carbon from the air at all. Even when the capture equipment is powered by renewable electricity, Jacobson concluded that it is always better to use the renewable electricity instead to replace coal or natural gas electricity or to do nothing, from a social cost perspective.

Given this analysis, Jacobson argued that the best solution is to instead focus on renewable options, such as wind or solar, replacing fossil fuels.

Efficiency and upstream emissions

This research is based on data from two real carbon capture plants, which both run on natural gas. The first is a coal plant with carbon capture equipment. The second plant is not attached to any energy-producing counterpart. Instead, it pulls existing carbon dioxide from the air using a chemical process.

Jacobson examined several scenarios to determine the actual and possible efficiencies of these two kinds of plants, including what would happen if the carbon capture technologies were run with renewable electricity rather than natural gas, and if the same amount of renewable electricity required to run the equipment were instead used to replace coal plant electricity.

While the standard estimate for the efficiency of carbon capture technologies is 85-90 percent, neither of these plants met that expectation. Even without accounting for upstream emissions, the equipment associated with the coal plant was only 55.4 percent efficient over 6 months, on average. With the upstream emissions included, Jacobson found that, on average over 20 years, the equipment captured only 10-11 percent of the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions that it and the coal plant contributed. The air capture plant was also only 10-11 percent efficient, on average over 20 years, once Jacobson took into consideration its upstream emissions and the uncaptured and upstream emissions that came from operating the plant on natural gas.

Due to the high energy needs of carbon capture equipment, Jacobson concluded that the social cost of coal with carbon capture powered by natural gas was about 24 percent higher, over 20 years, than the coal without carbon capture. If the natural gas at that same plant were replaced with wind power, the social cost would still exceed that of doing nothing. Only when wind replaced coal itself did social costs decrease.

For both types of plants this suggests that, even if carbon capture equipment is able to capture 100 percent of the carbon it is designed to offset, the cost of manufacturing and running the equipment plus the cost of the air pollution it continues to allow or increases makes it less efficient than using those same resources to create renewable energy plants replacing coal or gas directly.

“Not only does carbon capture hardly work at existing plants, but there’s no way it can actually improve to be better than replacing coal or gas with wind or solar directly,” said Jacobson. “The latter will always be better, no matter what, in terms of the social cost. You can’t just ignore health costs or climate costs.”

This study did not consider what happens to carbon dioxide after it is captured but Jacobson suggests that most applications today, which are for industrial use, result in additional leakage of carbon dioxide back into the air.

Focusing on renewables

People propose that carbon capture could be useful in the future, even after we have stopped burning fossil fuels, to lower atmospheric carbon levels. Even assuming these technologies run on renewables, Jacobson maintains that the smarter investment is in options that are currently disconnected from the fossil fuel industry, such as reforestation – a natural version of air capture – and other forms of climate change solutions focused on eliminating other sources of emissions and pollution. These include reducing biomass burning, and reducing halogen, nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

“There is a lot of reliance on carbon capture in theoretical modeling, and by focusing on that as even a possibility, that diverts resources away from real solutions,” said Jacobson. “It gives people hope that you can keep fossil fuel power plants alive. It delays action. In fact, carbon capture and direct air capture are always opportunity costs.”

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From EurekAlert!

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67 thoughts on “Stanford study casts doubt on carbon capture

  1. “carbon capture technologies can cause more harm than good.”

    Like starving the vegetation to the extent that it all ceases to matter.

    • A false solution to a false problem is obviously a tragic waste of both energy and money.

      It is typical of the kind insane “solution” you get when grossly distort real priorities. Once you are into BS like the end of life on Earth and being “in the middle of ” the 6th mass extinction, you can justify anything.

      CCS makes no sense from any point of view and should be decried by both eco-loons and AGW skeptics alike.

      • Yes Greg,

        The atmosphere is NOT an isolated bio-system, it is part of the structural and biological global system of this beautiful planet.
        If you ‘decarbonize’ the atmosphere then the CO2 partial pressure differential with the oceans/seas/lakes/etc. would increase, and CO2 would vent from them to reestablish an atmospheric equilibrium!
        If at the current oceanic SST (sea surface temperature) and global atmospheric temperatures, the atmospheric CO2 level must be 410ppm, then that is where it will be.
        NO AMOUNT of CO2 sequestration will prevent it.

  2. Mark Z. Jacobson: “Only when wind replaced coal itself did social costs decrease.”

    What is this thing called ‘social cost’? Can I deduct it on my taxes?

    • Not to mention costs of the requirement for energy generation capacity (coal, natural gas, whatever) for when the wind does not blow or blows too hard and when the sun does not shine—unless you are willing to tolerate shut downs of energy like we are experiencing again in Northern California as a regular part of the economy and daily life.

  3. Our group, with its principal laboratory in Denver, Colorado has conducted many successful trials on metallic oxides as salts using specific bacteria to perform direct reduction to the elemental state. Cobalt, copper, arsenic and chromium have all yielded these outcomes in large scale column tests. No doubt the same mechanism could be deployed for carbon capture and oxygen release. While we have looked at the notion, it is low on the list of priorities.

    • The heck with all of the “advanced” carbon dioxide capture technology. Natural gas at the well head usually contains a significant amount of CO2, and is called “sour gas,” because of its acidity. All of that CO2 has to be removed before the pipeline companies will allow it to enter their infrastructure, because it would cause destructive corrosion over time. The technology used to strip off CO2 from sour gas is incorporated in amine towers, which basically have a counterflow of wellhead gas and an amine (i.e. ammonia derivative chemical, which have a great affinity for CO2). The CO2 absorbed by the amine is stripped off later with heat, and sometimes the CO2 is recovered, sometimes it is just vented. But it isn’t an incredibly complicated or energy intensive process. We wouldn’t have the natural gas system we do today without it.

      Why, it even exists in the most backward of the developing countries. In Uganda, for example, they use Idi Amin towers.

      (I know, that’s a long way to go for a punchline. But for me, the journey is worth it.)

  4. Mark Z Jacobson is the professor that was suing his critics for claiming his 100% Renewable Power plan was seriously flawed.

    • Dalyplanet,

      The Jacobson WWS plan is for ALL US PRIMARY ENERGY to be from wind, water and solar.

      At first he had little storage, but later greatly increased it; a $multi trillion adder.

      At first he had no HVDC overlay grid, but later he added it; about a $500 billion adder

      • “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;”

        PS 58:4

    • They didn’t claim his work was flawed. They substantiated their claim that completely debunked Jacobson’s deception.
      Jacobson needed massive amounts of imaginary hydro power and random wind distributions to make his numbers work. Hydro is effectively maxed out in the lower 48. And he assumed poor wind conditions for one wind farm wouldn’t affect nearby regional wind farms as well, Both of his key assumptions were absurd. The part that makes him a deceiver is he certainly must’ve known his work was junk engineering analyses. What he didn’t expect was PNAS publishing rules by NAS fellows would allow for a rebuttal. The editors and NAS President McNutter could gate-keep the rebuttal out of PNAS. So he tried to sue (actually his green slime backer probably paid for the legal services to file the law suit to try to get a retraction from the authors or PNAS not able afford the lawfare).

  5. ”Given this analysis, Jacobson argued that the best solution is to instead focus on renewable options, such as wind or solar, replacing fossil fuels.”

    Mark Jacobsen lying and telling half truths once again. Sigh. Doesn’t he ever get tired of telling lies?
    I like my electricity at night and when the wind isn’t blowing. Funny that. I like my electricity also to be affordable so I’m not choosing between heat /AC and doing other things that keep me in middle class.
    The half truth is that CCS will be an utter failure if it is attempted at the scale necessary to counteract emissions growth. For multiple reasons CCS is an idiotic waste of resources. You don’t need to be PhD at Stanford to know that.

    That these carnival barkers don’t call for nuclear power electricity exposes their true agenda and who they are working for. If anyone were able to dig into academic Jacobsen’s funding sources (follow the money), it undoubtedly would lead to him licking up the money ooze trail left behind by Steyer or one of the other billionaires of the GreenSlime to push the wind and solar scam so aggressively.

    • Absolutely right:

      The test of seriousness of a catastrophic climate change claim is the willingness to replace carbon-based sources with nuclear energy—the only practical, proven alternative that could sustain our current level of economic activity.

      • Yes. All these harebrain schemes — carbon capture, low-reliable “renewables”, etc, etc, while a long-proven, reliable non-CO2-producer, nuclear, seems to the eco-loons like it doesn’t even exist. Just mal-education, or maybe some kind of psychotic condition.

      • I note that the article says “electricity to run the carbon capture came from natural gas“. Now, what possible reason could they possibly have for running their carbon capture on gas when they could have run it on wind power? They must be absolutely nuts, or hell-bent on destroying the planet, or something evil, mustn’t they? There is of course the teensy weensy possibility that they want to be able to run the carbon capture when needed instead of only when the wind is blowing (but not too hard).

        Surely, this tells you that wind power is a dud, and if you are serious about cutting CO2 emissions then – as kwinterkorn points out – you need to look at nuclear energy.

  6. Jacobson wants the US to obtain all its primary energy, not just primary energy for electrical energy, from wind, 50%, solar, 45%, and hydro/tidal/wave/geothermal 5%. No biomass, no nuclear.

    It looks like most of the windy parts of the Great Plains and of Texas, as well as the shallow parts of the US coasts would be covered with wind turbines that have about a 20 to 25 year life, etc.

    In addition, about 1000 TWh to 1500 TWh of storage would be required to cover peaking, filling in and balancing, 24/7/365

    In addition, a nationwide high voltage DC overlay grid, connected at many points to the existing high voltage AC grids, would be required to ensure all areas of the US would have 99.97% reliability of electricity services to meet US demands, enhanced by several hundred million future heat pumps and several hundred million future electric vehicles.

    The cost of reorienting the US economy away from fossil fuels would be at least $100 trillion spent during the next 50 to 75 years.

    At present, the US trade deficit is about $850 billion/y and the US budget deficit about $1 trillion/y, and the defense/intelligence budget is about $850 billion/y, so the US is in excellent shape to take on this additional burden, which may or may not make any difference regarding global warming.

    Has anyone ever thought it might be a lot less expensive to have a voluntary program that would provide big monetary incentives for about 20 million younger women per year to have no children?

    • The cost of that electricity and buying EVs would effectively result in the destruction of the middle into serfdom and indentured servitude. Because all of Jacobson’s fantasies ignore the energy source that ensures our food is grown, fertilized, harvested, processed, and moved to grocery stores.
      The guy is just either a mental defective or he is a serial liar who is getting paid to publish deceptions.

    • Almost all of out clothes and footwear is made from oil, gas and coal.

      A 100% wool cardigan of good quality, full front zipper or buttons, and two pockets, costs about $175.

      An equivalent one made of a mixture of synthetics costs about half that price.

      Can you image how many sheep, and how much pasture they would need, if the “leave it in the ground folks” controlled the Congress and the White House, and decreed all clothes shall be from natural materials?

      Just extend that to all other items, such as toys, computers, lightweight bicycles, cars, etc., made from oil, gas and coal.

      The insanity of those folks is far beyond rational.

    • A small mistake in the calculations: you forgot about unfunded liabilities.
      These are legally binding future benefits for which there is no known (ie in law) anticipated revenue source.
      The Present Value of the US Federal Unfunded Liabilities is currently $126T, which is $383k per US citizen (US Treasury numbers – see usdebtclock dot org).
      The direct meaning: ALL of us (including babies) need $383k in the bank, today, ready to give to the Feds, to cover this. Obviously we’ve already over-promised.
      To put it in perspective: we could take 100% of ALL income from every household earning over ~$100k (top 20%)… and that would not nearly be enough to cover this.

      Such fun, making pie-in-the-sky promised 🙂

    • @ Willem Post: “Has anyone ever thought it might be a lot less expensive to have a voluntary program that would provide big monetary incentives for about 20 million younger women per year to have no children?”

      Japan might be a cautionary tale regarding population control. Not having children is not a good plan.

      • Wayne,
        I did not state not having children.

        There are about 1.5 billion women of child bearing age in a population of 7.8 billion.
        I stated the NGO voluntary program would be for just 20 million women per year.

        It would take many years for population growth to decrease to zero percent, about 2070 according to analysis, and then many more decades to further decrease it so the other flora and fauna could begin to recover, survive and thrive.

    • The volunteers would also not need to borrow money for
      college because we could give them a guaranteed
      minimum wage annual income along with free
      public housing in sunny Venezuela or Cuba.

  7. “Wind replacing fossil fuels always reduces air pollution and never has a capture equipment cost”

    Guess he’s never heard of Sulphur Hexaflouride.

    I think the smarter option would be to concentrate on reducing pollution created by power plants (of which CO2 is not a part). Capturing CO2 is just silly, we don’t have much as it is.

      • He means that during the last glaciation CO2 in the atmosphere fell to about 180ppm. At 150 ppm green plants of all sorts begin to die off. The ice core records and fossil record show that CO2 in the atmosphere has been dropping for millions of years. It used to be as high as 4000 ppm.

    • Both wind and solar will have to have a capture equipment cost if his ‘renewables only’ pipe dream is to be realised. Not for gas, but for capturing the electricity produced when the generators are producing at rated output, to use when they are not. Massive batteries or pumped storage.

  8. They don’t want carbon capture because climate change is not about CO2 reduction, it’s about wealth redistribution.

    While I’d like to talk about wealth redistribution, I’ll do so after Al Gore and Leo DiCaprio distribute theirs first.

    And re a warmer planet. Today I’m freezing so I think warmer is better.

  9. Is there a “proper name” for people who irrationally hate plants?
    Apart from “extinct” if they succeed, that is.
    What makes these people so obtuse?
    The food cycle,life on planet earth,basic biology,the limits of growth?
    What happened?
    Is this the “success of public education”?
    Is stupidity truly contageous?
    Maybe banishment is our only hope.

    “Doom Doom Doom” makes a mighty fine tune, maybe it is time to surrender to the madness,burn the witches once again?
    The doom tune has been beaten all our lives and while it is a fine tune they are always wrong,time to sing along.
    So the trees will flourish at 494 parts per million and become “Woke” at 530 then freed of their Carbon dioxide starvation immobility at 700ppm,enabling their revenge against the axe,the saw and the burning brand ala Tolkien.
    Doom doom doom is great fun, everyone alive today will die..Insert date to suit…that one is even true but so trivial.
    When we protect the useless clueless and gullible beyond all hope, from their own choices.Results in..????
    Well now we know,we get more of them and they are acting exactly as they must.
    Turn off the lights the wind might blow…
    Stop moving someone might get hurt.

    • Is VO2 the only thing that limits plant growth? What about stable climate, like temperature patterns and water supply? Are they not factors as well? AGW is decreasing climate stability, so more CO2 ain’t gonna do much, is it?

      • CO2 does not decrease climate stability.
        GGs make the earth less like the moon. They are buffers, and buffers increase stability. Even if you buy into the CAGW fairytales, try to use your brain independently. Think about it: when is the weather most unstable? When is the jetstream the loopiest? Summer or winter?

  10. Mark Z. Jacobson

    I need to remember this name, so I never read anything he writes.
    In our local paper, I now look to the end of a letter to the editor so I can skip the half-dozen (it is a small community) nutters that write their allowed once-a-month letter.

  11. I don’t even know what they mean by “pollution” here. Since the EPA defined CO2 as a pollutant, we never know whether they mean CO2 or particulates. This ambiguity has led to AOC asserting that CO2 causes asthma.

    It’s the same sloppiness as calling CO2 “carbon”. Again, people think CO2 “pollution” has something to do with city pollution i.e. particulates. This conflating of C with CO2 in conjunction with the EPA directive is discombobulating the entire populace. So much so that it’s not just the asthma thing but also things like the BBC writing articles that call for “low carbon food”. It’s insane.

  12. CO2 sequestration is a misguided follow-on to the technologically misleading concept of ‘carbon footprint’. The planet atmosphere came dangerously close to the low level which would have resulted in extinction of all land plants and animals at the end of the last glaciation. It is still impoverished for CO2.

  13. The entire paper it based on two the false premises. These being: 1) that one would need a natural gas plant to supply the carbon capture system. and 2) that IGCC system emit more than controlled coal plants. That simply not the case.

    My guess is the authors based their analysis on Duke’s Edwardsport IGCC plant. That plant does have a 800 MW 2 x 1 Combined Cycle gas plant. And the gas plant does supply roughly 182 Mw of station service (power) that goes to the carbon capture system.

    However, the gas plant was installed to reduce the carbon capture system’s station service cost… not because and IGCC unit required it. Had they not built the gas plant they would have had to make the 562 Mw IGCC system roughly 32% larger. Or reduced the unit net output to roughly 380 Mw.

    Since the IGCC system was intended to be a proof of concept system, my guess is it Duke compromised in the interest of reducing the cost of the experiment. Moreover, in my opinion, the gas plant likely served as a back-up in case the IGCC system turned into a technical or economic flop. Since, if the entire IGCC plant were turned off, Duke could still supply the 618 Mw of power required satisfy its contract with the state of Indiana plus an additional 182 Mw of power to sell on the more lucrative merchant market.

    As to real pollution (not green house gases), IGCC systems emit lower NOx emissions than gas plants and lower SO2, SO3, Hg, and particulates than traditional coal plants.

    All that said, as a system planner for the U.S. largest public utility, I didn’t recommended building an IGCC system to my board of directors after roughly the 2000’s (I’m now retired). Because, to break even on a basic IGCC plant (i.e one without a carbon capture system) the cost of natural gas has to be roughly 3 times the cost of coal on a $/MBtu basis… and there was no way that was going to occur with today’s fracking technology.

    Keep in mind I’m not a reflexive critic of IGCC. I’ve worked on the first IGCC plant built in the United States and one point proposed to our board of directors that we build the largest IGCC fertilizer co-production complex in the world – one with multiple 2,000 tpd Shell gasifiers. Had we built that complex we would have paid for the entire plant within 3 years due to the spike in urea prices after the USSR collapsed and Ukraine’s urea plants quite selling urea a below cost to generate cash… alas that opportunity is long gone and will never be seen again.

    • I’m curious about why you say “as to real pollution (not greenhouse gases)”.

      Is a pollutant not a substance which can cause detrimental effects to a population or ecosystem under certain circumstances? CO2 is doing that, because we emitting too much too fast, and the climate is changing more quickly than eight billion people can adapt to.

      Or do you not agree with that?

      • George, Your definition of a pollutant allows someone to proclaim any substance a pollutant. Oxygen, ‘under certain circumstances’ will kill us all.

        • Oxygen and Nitrogen could be argued to be worse pollutants than CO2. CO2 is harmless up to more than ten times the atmospheric concentration, both oxygen and nitrogen are deadly long before that point.

      • I don’t agree with your premise that, with regard to green house gases, “we (are) emitting too much too fast, and the climate it changing”.

        I studied the issue for well over a decade and came to the conclusion the catastrophic globe warming hypothesis is pseudoscience.

      • The deadly DiHydrogen MonOxide.
        You, George, are by your own definition a pollutant.
        Please “cure” your detrimental effects.
        Of course you could learn to use your brain,but that tends to have consequences for cult members.

      • I believe if you look at the entire text you will see I used primary used “Mw” not “MW”. The one time I used “MW” was due to a cut and paste error that I didn’t catch in editing… a common error due to the fact that I suffer from mild dyslexia.

  14. If you wished to reduce global atmospheric CO2 from 400 to 200 ppm by underground storage, there would not be enough underground cavities. That ends that invention?
    Next? Geoff S

    • Thanks for the link to to the Murry Salby video. It was long, a bit complicated, but had so many good points.
      The video is difficult to comprehend without some mathematics knowledge though. A basic knowledge you may not expect from most newspaper editors and politicians. 🙁
      Sadly the tunnel visioned dream of Mark Z. Jacobson is easier to understand and accept.

  15. If the activists achieved their aim of zero human carbon emissions, would the level of CO2 in the atmosphere decrease at the same rate as it has increased recently?
    Would the level keep falling until it reaches 150 ppm, when it would be goodbye world as we know it?

    • Although I understand your worry, it is mot likely to happen. It is said that human contribution to the atmospheric CO₂ is somewhere between 3 and 5% of the “natural” CO₂, so even unachievable 100% capture would only forestall a little bit of the currently somewhat linear increase.

  16. What garbage. So we count the cost of carbon sequestration technology but not the cost of an entirely enormous, expansive, and short-lived wind farm?

  17. Oh I bet he never looked at the carbon dioxide produced from the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels and the installation of those things, because that would not have supported his argument, when you consider that a wind turbine or a solar panel never in its life produces as much power as was required to manufacture and install it, that makes renewables a loser form of energy.

  18. Capture for “industrial uses”? Unless existing commercial CO2 production sources are not adequate, this doesn’t have much utility other than enhanced oil production, which are best when sited near the well field. Next comes disposal by deep-well injection, next to the source or delivered by pipeline. Any real requirement for CCS effectively prices that combustion source out of the market.

  19. Napoleon Bonaparte said “History is a set of lies agreed upon”. . . .
    . . . ahead to 2019 politicians and climate-fear acolytes . . .
    The Climate Change narrative is a set of lies agreed upon !

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