Moniz-led group unveils CCS road map

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2020

A threatening question hangs over California’s 412,000 oil and gas industry workers: Will their jobs evaporate as the state pursues its path-breaking conversion to carbon-free energy by 2045?

One answer would come from the creation of an entirely new industry in the state — the capture and underground storage of carbon dioxide emissions from gas-fired power plants and manufacturing operations, according to a report issued yesterday.

The proposal to make California a center of carbon capture and storage (CCS) development was issued yesterday by researchers from Stanford University and the Energy Futures Initiative, a think tank led by former Obama administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Under their plan, a significant share of the state’s gas-fired power plants, tagged for elimination under the 2045 zero-carbon goal, would remain in operation to back up wind and solar generation — but their CO2 emissions would be captured and transported by pipeline to be pumped underground. From that start, CCS could be extended to remove CO2 emissions from other major California industries that also burn gas.

But CCS is sharply opposed by some climate and clean energy activists who see it as a backdoor strategy by the oil and gas industry to hold on to a large share of future electricity generation, limiting the ascendancy of wind and solar power, electric vehicles, and battery storage.

The CCS debate plays into the election fight between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden over the impact of climate policies on energy employment.

“There are skillsets in the traditional energy sector, such as geologists, petroleum engineers, chemical engineers, process technicians, pipeline workers, and other related construction skills that could be re-deployed to support CCS,” according to the report, aimed at California policymakers.

In an interview, Moniz said jobs created by CCS development would answer Trump’s charge that Biden’s commitment to climate policies would be a job destroyer.

“There has not been nearly enough attention paid to the disruption of workers and communities” caused by the massive transformation to a zero-carbon economy, Moniz said, and CCS can help replace that lost employment.

The report projects that California’s commitment to the technology could cradle development of a generation of jobs in existing fields like drilling and pipeline operations, and employment in yet unborn industries such as hydrogen production for industrial processes and the capture and storage of CO2 from the air.

The report’s sponsors include the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, comprising the leading oil and gas majors, and labor unions representing mine workers, electrical workers, boilermakers, and the building and construction trades. It offers a blueprint for developing CCS, including proposals for pilot projects storing CO2 from existing ethanol refineries, and featuring the technology in the state’s clean energy mandates.

A second case for CCS in the report centers on maintaining the stability of the power grid as intermittent wind and solar provide greater and greater shares of electricity.

Moniz yesterday renewed his argument that California cannot safely approach its far-reaching goals to shift to renewable power and vehicle electrification without “firm clean” energy — meaning power that utilities can call on 24/7, whenever wind or solar resources aren’t available.

The report challenges analysts who calculate the state could meet clean energy goals almost entirely with wind and solar power, more energy efficiency, and a big investment in battery storage.

The CCS report notes that California had 90 days in 2018 with little or no wind generation, and no wind for as many as 10 days in a row. Today’s batteries could not cover low-renewable spells like that without an extraordinary investment, Moniz’s team says.

The state has about 6 gigawatts of firm clean power, including nuclear, geothermal and biomass, equal to about 16% of total generation, the CCS report said.

According to one recent analysis, California would need 30 GW of firm clean power by 2045 to cover scenarios when wind or solar generation can’t meet demand.

Many experts say leading candidates for filling that need are a new generation of small modular nuclear reactors and CCS, though both face still-unsolved technology challenges with unclear development costs. The report yesterday did not tackle which option could have the lowest costs and easier innovation pathway.

Finding the ‘sweet spot’

In a panel discussion yesterday about the CCS report, Jane Long, senior contributing scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund, supported the report’s conclusions backing CCS.

“The need for clean firm power is pretty overwhelming,” she said. Trying to keep the grid stable just with renewable power and batteries “is going to cost significantly more [than] to do it without clean firm power, and it probably won’t work.”

But the report lists many obstacles that could chill investor interest, including unsettled issues of how CCS operations would be regulated and the need for state incentives to support a first round of pilot plants.

Long said that EDF had asked Southern California Edison, one of the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities, about its interest in gas generation with CCS, and got no for an answer.

“It just doesn’t work for them right now, because it’s expensive,” she said. “They’ve got their gas plants.”

California needs to set a statewide standard requiring that a percentage of generation be firm clean power, starting low and building up to 30 GW by 2045, she said. The requirement — like a renewable energy standard — is necessary because “the economics are not going to drive preparations,” she said. And without a head start, the resources won’t be there when they will be needed, Long added.

“When the sun is shining in the middle of the day, that’s about the cheapest power you can get,” said Sally Benson, a Stanford engineering professor who was part of the report team. But the economics don’t stop there.

“If you try to build a whole electrical system on the sun and the wind and the batteries, you need to build a gigantic system to compensate for the fact that you’re not going to have that reliability,” Benson said. “Then your overall system costs get to be very high because you’re paying for a bunch of solar you rarely use. You’re paying for a bunch of batteries you use very inefficiently.”

There is a “sweet spot” for mixing renewables, short- and long-term storage, and firm clean energy like gas with CCS, Benson said.

“Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer” where that sweet spot is, she added.