Can the gas industry be saved by a miracle? [Gas Transitions]
With record-breaking temperatures in many places in the northern hemisphere (in my home country the Netherlands, temperatures reached 40.7 °C, smashing the existing 1944-record of 38.6 °C by a stunning 2.1 °C), many people are saying global warming is no longer a future threat, but a living reality.
This is mostly not good news for the natural gas industry. The urgency to curtail fossil fuel emissions will only become stronger. Not even Donald Trump will be able to do anything about that.
As a sign on the wall: in July, Berkeley, California, became the first US city to ban natural gas in new residential buildings. The UK paper The Guardian, noting that “governments across the US and Europe are looking at strategies to phase out gas”, observed that “natural gas has become the new climate crisis frontline.”
There is a slight silver lining to this low-hanging cloud: the need for speed should make coal-to-gas switching an attractive short-term option in some markets. Los Angeles, as The Guardian points out, is investing in a new gas-fired power plant to replace coal-fired power. Germany and Spain are also increasingly switching from coal to gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) published an interesting report on 11 July, “The role of gas in today’s energy transitions”, showing that significant “quick wins” are still possible from coal-to-gas switching, in particular in the US and Europe.
Nevertheless, as Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, points out in the foreword, the report also “highlights the limits” of the contribution coal-to-gas switching can make. Gas “can bring environmental benefits, but it remains a source of emissions in its own right and new gas infrastructure can lock in these emissions for the future,” Birol writes.
This means that if in the coming years temperatures keep on going up, the gas bridge to the low-carbon future will become ever shorter. Only a miracle, it would seem, could save the gas industry.
But miracles, they say, do not exist. Or do they?
Human beings are inventive. Why couldn’t they come up with an unexpected way to solve the climate crisis? Indeed, researchers and entrepreneurs are exploring various technologies to make CO2 disappear. If successful, these “negative emission technologies”, as they are called, could, theoretically, make it possible to continue producing and using fossil fuels, or at least to make their phase-out less urgent.
1. Direct air capture
One promising negative emission technology is known as direct air capture (DAC). You may have read about the Swiss company Climeworks, which in 2017 commissioned the world’s first commercial-scale facility where DAC plants are built consisting of multiple CO2 collectors. Or the Canadian firm Carbon Engineering, which has developed a technology that not only captures CO2 from the atmosphere, but also one that synthesises the CO2 into “clean, affordable transportation fuels.”
For an outsider it is very difficult to assess the feasibility of such initiatives, but fortunately, independent researchers from Italy, Ireland and the Grantham Institute in the UK, have recently published an analysis of the two technologies employed by Climeworks and Carbon Engineering, in Nature Communications. Simon Evans of the website Carbon Brief wrote a fascinating article about the research on the website Carbon Brief.
Evans explains that the researchers used two different integrated assessment models (IAMs) to evaluate the potential of DAC technologies. As study author Dr Ajay Gambhir, senior research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, told Carbon Brief: “This is the first inter-model comparison…[and] has the most detailed representation of DAC so far used in IAMs. It includes two DAC technologies, with different energy inputs and cost assumptions, and a range of energy inputs including waste heat. The study uses an extensive sensitivity analysis [to test the impact of varying our assumptions]. It also includes initial analysis of the broader impacts of DAC technology development, in terms of material, land and water use.”
The two DAC technologies are based on different ways to adsorb CO2 from the air, notes Evans. “One, typically used in larger industrial-scale facilities such as those being piloted by Canadian firm Carbon Engineering, uses a solution of hydroxide to capture CO2. This mixture must then be heated to high temperatures to release the CO2 so it can be stored and the hydroxide reused. The process uses existing technology and is currently thought to have the lower cost of the two alternatives."
“The second technology uses amine adsorbents in small, modular reactors such as those being developed by Swiss firm Climeworks. Costs are currently higher, but the potential for savings is thought to be greater, the paper suggests. This is due to the modular design that could be made on an industrial production line, along with lower temperatures needed to release CO2 for storage, meaning waste heat could be used.”
The results seem encouraging. The study suggests that the use of DAC “could allow early cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions to be somewhat delayed, significantly reducing climate policy costs to meet stringent temperature limits. Using DAC means that global emissions in 2030 could remain at higher levels, the study says, with much larger use of negative emissions later in the century."
“The results of both models are surprisingly similar,” Dr Nico Bauer, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research (PIK), who was not involved in the study, told Carbon Brief. “This increases the credibility about the main conclusions that the DACCS technology can play an important role in a long-term climate change mitigation strategy.” (DACCS stands for Direct Air Capture and Carbon Storage: the captured CO2, if it is not used, must be stored after all. The researchers do not regard CO2-storage as a major bottleneck.)
As the paper explains: “DACCS allows a reduction in near term mitigation effort in some energy-intensive sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, such as transport and industry.” According to Evans, “even though DAC may be relatively expensive, the model pathways in today’s study still see it as much cheaper than cutting emissions from these hard-to tackle sectors. This means the models deploy large amounts of DAC, even if its costs are at the high end of current estimates.”
“It also means the models see pathways to meeting climate goals that include DAC as having lower costs overall (reduce[d]… by between 60 to more than 90%)." Gambhir tells Carbon Brief: "Deploying DAC means less of a steep mitigation pathway in the near-term, and lowers policy costs, according to the modelled scenarios we use in this study.”
However, don’t get the champagne out yet. There are also some “significant challenges” to be overcome, notes Evans. The biggest one: the enormous energy use that would be required if DAC were to be rolled out at the scale envisioned. “The energy needed to run direct air capture machines in 2100 is up to 300 exajoules each year, according to the paper. This is more than half of overall global demand today, from all sources, and despite rising demand this century, it would still be a quarter of expected demand in 2100. To put it another way, it would be equivalent to the current annual energy demand of China, the US, the EU and Japan combined – or the global supply of energy from coal and gas in 2018.”
In addition, notes Evans, “there are also questions as to whether this new technology could be rolled out at the speed and scale envisaged, with expansion at up to 30% each year and deployment reaching 30GtCO2/yr towards the end of the century. This is a huge pace and scale, Gambhir says, with the rate of deployment being a key sensitivity in the study results.”
“Reaching 30GtCO2/yr of CO2 capture – a similar scale to current global emissions – would mean building some 30,000 large-scale DAC factories, the paper says. For comparison, there are fewer than 10,000 coal-fired power stations in the world today. If DAC were to be carried out using small modular systems, then as many as 30m might be needed by 2100, the paper says. It compares this number to the 73m light vehicles that are built each year.”
Nevertheless, the study argues that “expanding DAC at such a rapid rate is comparable to the speed with which newer electricity generation technologies such as nuclear, wind and solar have been deployed” and is “not in contradiction with the historical experience.”
Needless to say, making DAC happen on a large scale would require large investments and financial incentives which are currently lacking. Perhaps gas companies should provide some funding?
A second group of negative emissions technologies goes by the name of geoengineering. If DAC is a long shot, geoengineering seems to be even longer – at this moment in any case. No major geoengineering projects have ever been carried out on planet Earth, but, as author James Temple recently reported on MIT Technology Review, “for years, several Harvard climate scientists have been preparing to launch a balloon capable of spraying reflective particles into the atmosphere, in the hopes of learning more about our ability to counteract global warming.”
It is a project “fraught with controversy,” notes Temple, as “critics fear such a step will lend scientific legitimacy to the idea that we could turn the dial on Earth’s climate. And they fret that even doing experiments is starting down a slippery slope toward creating a tool of incredible power.”
Nevertheless, Harvard is forging ahead with the SCoPex project, as it is called, and has now taken the step to form an oversight committee “to ensure that researchers take appropriate steps to limit health and environmental risks, seek and incorporate outside input, and operate in a transparent manner.” It’s “a move that could create a template for how geoengineering research is conducted going forward, and perhaps pave the way for more experiments to follow.”
The researchers, if they get the green light from the committee, are planning an initial test flight within about six months, notes Temple, from a site in New Mexico. This would provide them with real-world data for the first time. Although models show that the technique they are planning to use lowers temperatures, no experiments have been done.
Some other limited geoengineering projects have been carried out, writes Temple. “Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, sprayed smoke and salt particles off the coast of California in 2011, and scientists in Russia dispersed aerosols from a helicopter and car in 2009. Plans for a proposed outdoor experiment in the UK, known as the SPICE project, were dropped in 2012, amid public criticism and conflict-of-interest accusations.”
Research has also been done on solar geoengineering, which would involve sending a giant mirror into space to reflect sunlight – see this article on Carbon Brief.
As Temple describes it, the Harvard experiment “will launch a scientific balloon equipped with propellers and sensors around 20 km above Earth. The aircraft would release between 100 grams and 2 kg of sub-micrometer-size particles of calcium carbonate, a substance naturally found in shells and limestone, in a roughly kilometre-long plume. The balloon would then fly through the plume, enabling the sensors to measure things such as how broadly the particles disperse, how they interact with other compounds in the atmosphere, and how reflective they are.”
Clearly for gas companies in the real world to wait for geoengineering to save them is not an option at this point. Still, stranger things have happened. If warming were to be seen to get out of control, geoengineering could be viewed by political leaders as the only way to save the world.
3. Tree planting
A third, much more straightforward negative emissions technology that recently hit the front pages is tree planting.
Tom Crowther, a young British scientist who works at Swiss university ETH Zürich, published a paper on Science on July 4 which argues that, as The Guardian summarized it in a surprisingly positive article: “Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis.”
Going by The Guardian, a paper known for its highly committed climate coverage, a massive global tree planting programme is feasible and could have an incredible impact: “it could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as mind-blowing.”
For this it would be necessary to plant 1.2 trillion trees on about 1.7bn hectares of land, an area the size of the US and China combined. According to the researchers, there is sufficient treeless land available across the globe to carry out a project like this. The cost for restoring 1 trillion trees would be around $0.30/tree, so just $300bn, “by far the cheapest solution that has ever been proposed,” as Crowther puts it.
In the article, Crowther gets support from several prominent people, such as Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief and founder of the Global Optimism group, and René Castro, assistant director-general at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Joseph Poore, an environmental researcher at Queen’s College, University of Oxford, who was not involved in the project, said: “This research is excellent,” although he added that the trees would partly replace existing farmland, which Crowther denies.
Other researchers said that the amount of carbon that mass tree planting could suck from the air is lower than Crowther assumes. And there is one big caveat to this proposal: since trees grow slowly, it would take 50 to 100 years for the planting to have an effect.
4. Zero carbon gas plants
The best known negative emission technology is of course CCUS (carbon capture use and storage), which is known to work but has not scaled up sufficiently yet. This may be about to change, though, as the Texas-based company NET Power in July announced that it is planning to build “multiple zero-carbon natural gas power plants around the world,” according to an article by Jeff McMahon on Forbes.
You may have heard about the NET Power project in Texas – it has been covered regularly by various energy publications over the last few years. McMahon describes it as follows: “A NET Power plant captures the carbon dioxide from burning natural gas and uses that CO2 under pressure – when the gas acquires some of the qualities of a liquid –where traditional power plants use water as a coolant or steam to drive turbines. In NET Power’s design, some of that CO2, heated to 720º C, returns to the combustion chamber to boost the combustion of more gas. The remaining CO2 is diverted to commercial markets, where it can be used to carbonate soda pop, to decaffeinate coffee and tea, to make building materials, or to enhance oil and gas extraction from oil wells. Backed by Exelon, McDermott and Occidental Petroleum, and featuring a turbine specially designed by Toshiba, the NET Power concept has been hailed as a "game changer" by many observers in industry and at universities – if it works.”
McMahon reports that on 22 July Adam Goff, a principal at NET Power’s parent company 8 Rivers Capital, came out with a rather sensational announcement at a workshop hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. "We have multiple 300-MW commercial projects in development," Goff said in the Washington D.C. workshop on Deployment of Deep Decarbonization Technologies. "None of them are announced yet, but we’ve got a couple in the US and then some in Canada, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East and Europe – the regions of the world where we have an interest in developing these projects."
Goff noted that the company sees the US market as a “launching pad”, thanks to the $50 tax credit companies get for every ton of carbon they sequester. (European policymakers: take note. The US is ahead of you here!) But over time, most projects would be in Asia and Africa.
According to Goff, thanks to the tax credit and the sale of CO2 and by-products nitrogen and argon, production costs of the NET Power plant are just $0.019/kWh compared with $0.042/kWh for a conventional CCGT. He added he does not expect the price advantage to hold, but did project cost parity with conventional plants over the long run.
If all this comes true, the NET Power technology would be a game-changer indeed for the natural gas industry. And that’s putting it mildly. However, it is only a promise so far: the company has not started producing power yet. Goff explained: “We started construction in 2016, finished at the end of 2017. We ran our full combustor test, done at the end of August 2018. That was kind of our big milestone, and the basic R&D phase is over. Since then we’ve been doing the turbine test path, which will finish up in the next couple months with us announcing we’ve produced power."
It does look like this is one to watch.
Of course no industry should bank on miracles – and some scientists are warning that “sucking carbon out of the air is no magic fix for the climate emergency” – nevertheless, any and all of these technologies show that the future may yet turn out to look very different from the standard scenarios offered to us by the likes of the IEA, which are based on present knowledge and policies. Who knows, the future might even be better than we imagine.
How will the gas industry evolve in the low-carbon world of the future? Will natural gas be a bridge or a destination? Could it become the foundation of a global hydrogen economy, in combination with CCS? How big will “green” hydrogen and biogas become? What will be the role of LNG and bio-LNG in transport?
From his home country The Netherlands, a long-time gas exporting country that has recently embarked on an unprecedented transition away from gas, independent energy journalist, analyst and moderator Karel Beckman reports on the climate and technological challenges facing the gas industry.
As former editor-in-chief and founder of two international energy websites (Energy Post and European Energy Review) and former journalist at the premier Dutch financial newspaper Financieele Dagblad, Karel has earned a great reputation as being amongst the first to focus on energy transition trends and the connections between markets, policies and technologies. For Natural Gas World he will be reporting on the Dutch and wider International gas transition on a weekly basis.
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