When a problem occurs, it’s generally better to confront it rather than push it aside. However, one potential proposal to reduce atmospheric carbon levels tries to do just that by sealing it away.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) works as its name suggests. When industrial facilities or power plants release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that heavily contributes to human-induced climate change, the gas is captured, transported and stored deep in Earth’s interior. By keeping the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, supporters of CCS say they can safely reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations. But because of the uncertainty in the process’ safety and relatively high cost, it would be best to eliminate it.
As I’ve said in a previous column, unintended consequences often surface with seemingly safe environmental solutions. Nobody wakes up in the morning with the intention of causing an environmental catastrophe, but they still happen because science can’t accurately anticipate every problem.
Associate geology professor Elizabeth Catlos says scientists can’t guarantee carbon dioxide will stay trapped underground.
“You really need to know if you’re pushing [carbon] down there,” Catlos said. “How long is it going to be trapped for? Is it going to be trapped for ten years? A million years? Eventually it’s going to want to come out.”
Large and unexpected releases of carbon dioxide can cause asphyxiation in humans and animals living nearby, according to an article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010. Due to conflicting beliefs on the technology’s safety, the public should remain cautious.
Aside from environmental concerns and human health risks, the relatively high costs of CCS further weakens its feasibility. According to 2020 estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, costs of generating electricity using coal and natural gas become higher than certain renewable energy sources once CCS is included. Coal with CCS costs more per megawatt-hour than solar, and natural gas with CCS costs more than wind. While some areas can’t incorporate certain forms of energy, the breadth of low-cost options makes renewable energy the best choice.
Last week, UT researchers released a study documenting an improved CCS process with higher efficiency. In the experiment, the researchers successfully reduced energy loss in the capture process, thus making it cheaper and more appealing to power companies. Unfortunately, a co-author of the study said it could take up to two decades before power plants adopt CCS systems.
Ultimately, renewable energy sources are a more viable way to reduce atmospheric carbon levels than CCS. But it’s going to take a lot for an effective revamp. Power companies relying on carbon-intensive fuels don’t have enough incentive to incorporate expensive CCS technologies, and switching to a completely different production process to be used with renewables is impractical in a small time frame.
To fix the problem, stricter carbon limits should be gradually imposed on power companies. By doing this, the industry will be forced to slowly adopt renewable options and phase out fossil fuels. Global climate change may be the biggest problem humans face in the coming years, but carbon capture and storage shouldn’t be factored in the solution.
Chan is a journalism freshman from Sugar Land. Chan is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @BenroyChan.