Will Bioenergy With Carbon Capture Save Us?

We don’t hear much these days about BECCS – that’s bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – as carbon capture in general struggles to fulfill its climate-change mitigation promise. But a new study out of Sweden says BECCS could save our bacon, and actually be pretty cost-effective, even if we don’t act quickly and forcefully enough to keep the global temperature from rising more than 2°C.

“The most policy relevant implication of our study is that even if current political gridlock causes global warming in excess of 2°C, we can reverse the temperature trend and reach targets later. This means that 2°C targets or even more ambitious targets can remain on the table in international climate negotiations,” study co-author Christian Azar said in a statement.

The way things are going, that “if” sounds pretty likely, and that, if the Swedes are right, could make BECCS worth pursuing with a little more vigor.

The basic idea behind BECCS is to use biomass (crops: tree, plants, whatever) for fuel to produce electricity or for transportation. Sure, biomass emits carbon when burned – but when the plants were growing they absorbed carbon. This, advocates say, makes them carbon neutral. If you then layer carbon capture and storage onto the power plant or fuel processing plant, you end up with negative carbon emissions. That is, the whole process pulls more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in.

In 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote [PDF], “Combining biomass conversion with developing carbon capture and storage could lead to long-term substantial removal of GHGs from the atmosphere (also referred to as negative emissions).”

Of course there are issues with this very nice scenario – why do you think it’s not happening on a big scale? CCS technologies are varied, new. expensive, uncertain. In addition, there are all kinds of issues related to growing and harvesting plants for fuel, from just how carbon neutral the whole process really is in life-cycle analysis to the impact on land use and thus food production and prices.

BECCS is working in some demonstration-level projects. Last November a project in Illinois backed by the U.S. Department of Energy completed its first year of taking carbon dioxide captured from an ethanol plant and injecting it into the Mount Simon Sandstone. Some  317,000 tons had been buried at a rate of 1,100 tons/day, according to MIT’s CCS technologies page.

But such small-scale projects, usually costing more than expected and taking longer than expected, only seem to emphasize how far there is to go with carbon capture. Which, in a way, makes the Swedes’ case more intriguing because, as mentioned, they allow for overshooting the 2°C target. Of course, there’s a downside to that acknowledgement, as the authors write:

The option of global negative emissions increases the possibility of meeting stringent overshoot temperature targets. This benefit of BECCS is also, somewhat paradoxically, its main political risk. The possibility of achieving negative emissions in the future may be perceived as a carte blanche for delaying emission abatement efforts.

This would be bad, they say, ticking off the reasons:

First, because of the long atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide, the less we emit in the near term, the more ambitious targets can be reached in the future. Second, the potential rate of temperature decline (about 0.6 ° C per century) is too slow to act as an ‘emergency brake’ on short timescales, if climate damage becomes unacceptable. Third, the extent to which BECCS can be made available in the future is uncertain, due to uncertainties in land availability as well as technological constraints. Fourth, there are ecological and climate risks associated with the higher temperatures during the transient phase

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Valjean1

    Wireless communication energy permeates the atmosphere non-stop (and growing) and its energy adds a hot water bottle under the gas comforter we also create. From radio to TV to cell phones, i-this and that, etc. all create or utilize such energy, especially limiting cooling as night creeps across the global atmosphere. Denial is irrelevant.

  • http://www.eprida.com dannyday

    BECCS becomes much more viable as one considers the value of carbon use in the carbon cycle. Certainly there are some economic uses for CO2 in enhanced oil recovery, but that exacerbates the problem by producing more CO2. The largest sink that can use carbon profitably with no downside is in the soil. Biochar as a soil amendment reduces fertilizer use (and its associated GHG emissions), reduces water use, increases crop productivity, increases nutrient density in food crops and returns economic value for the farmer by restoring soil fertility. The potential is so vast and if given the type of funding bandied about for CCS around the world, the net results would be an economic gain by of the most impoverished of the earth’s population. Check out slide 5 of the June 2003 International Energy Workshop to see a graphical illustration of biochar’s potential when combined with bioenergy production. http://www.eprida.com/present.php4

  • Karen Sherry Brackett

    There is nothing wrong with using biomass as long as one understands that biomass does not just emit carbon and any energy produced from biomass has to still meet environmental standards when it comes to proper disposal of by products and emission filtration for clean air. Plants take up pretty much every element and consequently when they are burned or allowed to decompose release all of those stored elements back into the environment. Some states are using wood incinerators already which is fine as long as they use air scrubbers and control their releases. While a home in the mountains or the countryside burning wood is a spread out release, a power plant burning biomass releases much higher concentrations and as such makes it a biohazard. Also, a city full of homes with fireplaces burning wood could also be a biohazard because of the combined localized concentration. We really should see by products of energy production as potential gold mines for recapturing and repurposing the elements. Burial of carbon waste is fine but carbon is a great building block for the production of many goods. Burying it is like burying money. It really makes no sense. At the very least it can be reprocessed into potting soil for flowering plants. Of course, if some location has a lot of sandstone getting free carbon upgrades for their soil content is not a bad deal in my opinion; but it is not a wise business move on the retailer’s end. lol

    • Mike Sheehan

      Karen, we’ve come along way since the Franklin stove. Modern technology can pyrolize biomass, capture a third or more of the carbon as biochar while generating power from the biofuels and generating nearly zero particulate exhaust. The biochar (a soil catalyst) offsets fertilizer production, which is primarily from cracking natural gas releasing more CO2. It’s a big picture domino effect. For that effect to take hold we have to have a concerned and committed public. The technology is there the public is not.

  • Karen Sherry Brackett

    As for will it save us? Probably not. We already know from space observation that forest fires help the continent they are located on but not the atmosphere on a global scale. Although, by a secondary measure they do help the atmosphere by sending essential nutrients picked up in rain back to sea which feeds plankton. Plankton really do help the environment in regards to oxygen levels.

    However, an increase in plankton consequently increases ocean populations which increase everything else and by the end of the chain the net help in temperature will not be enough. The Ozone layer is what we have to fix.

  • Mike Sheehan

    Why would anyone take a high value industrial product like CO2 and pump it into the ground. That is the genie in the bottle around carbon capture, how do we make it profitable? Without the profit motive we will not remove CO2, we will not attract the genius and ingenuity of the private sector.

  • Karen Sherry Brackett

    It is definitely a complicated problem. It is also important to note that The Montreal summit puts off any attempt to combat global warming until 2020 for 200 countries including the US and China and until 2030 for smaller developing countries. On top of which the Kyoto Protocols allow so much horse trading that our global net effort to address this problem is practically zero. Keep in mind as well that Chlorine is far more active in causing global warming than CO2 is or ever will be. Add to all of this that most countries do not even have a complete 100 year weather record. The climate data we are working with is murky at best and greatly unpredictable at worst. Yet we know that to our collective knowledge to date, for the first time there are now two holes in the ozone layer with one for each pole. While these holes are able to heal themselves over a year’s time and then reopen again, the fact that they exist is undeniable. It is like being up a creek without a paddle; while being the one person in the canoe tall enough to see the edge of the falls coming. No one else wants to believe there is an imminent threat and no one else has a paddle of a clue on how to avoid it at the same time. So, the only thing left to do is hold on tight and enjoy the ride! That is the position I have assumed anyway after 23+ years of preaching the warnings of climate change.