By Christophe Jospe
When I joined the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy as a communications intern in September 2013, I had the good fortune of sitting in on group meetings with other masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students with a science and engineering training. As a Master of Public Administration candidate in the Program in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs, this added a technical perspective to my policy background. As I learned more about the many innovative energy technologies that the Lenfest Center is developing, the novel work in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) sparked my imagination. While in energy policy discussions, I heard CCUS consistently dismissed as either too expensive or too uncertain in a low-carbon future that favors natural gas, energy efficiency and renewable energy. These arguments against CCUS seemed to neglect the likely reality (as outlined in the 2014 International Panel on Climate Change report) that mitigating climate change will require a permanent solution to capture excess carbon dioxide and store it. Yet as was made clear during the three day Research Coordination Network on CCUS annual meeting hosted by Lenfest in April, much can be done, and much more should be done at a much quicker rate than we’re doing it.
Working to broaden my expertise in carbon capture, utilization and storage, I joined Lenfest postdoctoral researcher Junfeng Wang and PhD student Maxim Stonor at the 10th annual Research Experience in Carbon Sequestration. The program is the premier U.S. education and field research for graduate students and early career professionals and is designed to prepare a world-class workforce, nurture career opportunities and facilitate research activities in CCUS. It receives support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Fossil Energy, and the National Science Foundation’s Research Coordination Network on CCUS led by Columbia University.
This year, the program took place in Alabama and Mississippi from June 1-10. Expert lecturers from industry and academia provided a multidisciplinary approach to CCUS in topics that ranged from developments in carbon capture technology, enhanced oil recovery and storage risk mitigation, to communications strategies, and implications of CCUS-related regulations, legislation and commercialization. We visited several facilities operated by or connected to Southern Power Co.: two coal-fired power plants, the National Carbon Capture Center, the headquarters of the Alabama Power company, a core laboratory, an integrated gasification combined-cycle plant, and a co-located coal mine. Post-doctoral fellow Greeshma Gadikota also presented novel research in carbon mineralization that she and Lenfest Associate Director Alissa Park work on at the Lenfest Center.
The program provided significant insight into the advancements, challenges and promises within CCUS technologies. Jungfeng Wang, whose research focuses on advanced CO2 capture techniques using nanoparticle organic hybrid materials, found the experience particularly useful in understanding the viability of CO2 storage. “Learning more about mineralization convinced me of our ability to securely and safely store carbon dioxide” said Wang. In one of the exercises on public engagement on CCUS, Maxim Stonor volunteered to be video-taped in his response to a mock-scenario of a press conference for a utility that required a rate increase to support CCUS. “Being put on the spot, and then watching myself filmed after made me realize how important it is to be prepared for public engagement.”
For me, hearing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s recent announcement of the “Clean Power Plan” regarding emissions reductions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030 while standing inside Plant Miller, the second largest CO2 emitter in the country, was an eye-opener. Many of the conversations within the Lackner group around CCUS policy begin with considering it as a tool to achieve carbon neutrality.
While the EPA’s proposed rule is unprecedented in its approach to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, by itself it is insufficient in enabling CCUS to become a viable and cost-effective solution in achieving zero emissions. Hearing the response to the announcement from power industry representatives provided a unique perspective of the challenges of balancing stakeholder interests and getting to where we need to be. However, despite the costs and potential risks, the environmental goal of storing excess carbon dioxide permanently is one that all Research Experience in Carbon Sequestration participants are working towards, and see as a necessity to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and mitigate the effects of climate change. The abundance of fossil fuels to provide inexpensive energy requires it.
As I witnessed the many sides needed for this technology to move forward, I further understood the Research Coordination Network’s goals to cross the boundaries of the natural, social and economic sciences, and engineering to advance CCUS as part of our sustainable future.
Christophe Jospe is the communications associate at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and a recent graduate of the Environmental Science and Policy Program.