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CCS’ prospects under Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s newly nominated Energy Secretary, shares much with his predecessor, Steven Chu, outgoing head of the Department of Energy (DOE) and who is returning to an academic chair at Stanford University. Both men are prominent academic physicists, with long track records of advancing energy technology.

Chu proved to be a vocal advocate for clean energy technologies, especially in the realms of renewables and transportation, funneling billlions in stimulus dollars into early stage R&D through DARPA-e and buoying mid-stage companies such as Tesla with federal loans. Under Chu’s watch, carbon capture and storage (CCS) remained a priority, with efforts to press ahead with FutureGen 2.0, but lacked the urgency that many stakeholders wanted to see.

Assuming a quick Senate approval—Moniz is widely regarded to face a relatively easy confirmation—so what’s in store for CCS under a Moniz-led DOE? On the downside, Moniz takes charge in a period of ever-tightening fiscal policy, so will all but certainly have less public money to deploy than did Chu.

If the conditions of the recent sequester hold, the budget for the DOE’s Fossil R&D program—under which FutureGen and other carbon capture programs are funded—will be cut by 5 per cent, or US$25 million.

On the upside, Moniz enters his new post with far more experience in rough-and-tumble Beltway tactics than did Chu. Moniz served in the second term of President Clinton's cabinet, first as Under Secretary of Energy, and later as Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology. Moniz has frequently testified before Congress, as well.

In terms of CCS, if past is precedent, there’s reason to be hopeful, maybe even a little optimistic.

I spent some time conducting some research to map out Moniz’ work and statements on CCS. Here’s what I found. If you have other examples, please comment and add more in the comments.

As Tamar Hallerman notes at GHG Monitor, Moniz has co-authored several high-profile works on energy technology and policy in which carbon is a central issue. In The Future of Coal (2007, MIT Energy Initiative) CCS is addressed front and center, vital to extending coal’s tenure in an environmentally tolerable way. The report formally recommends both a carbon price and that the Energy Dept. alter practices in its Fossil R&D regime to accelerate the development of CCS. Retrofitting of Coal-Fired Power Plants for CO2 Emissions Reductions (2009, MIT Energy Initiative) offers far more detail on these issues. In the Summary for Policy Makers section which Moniz co-authored, he makes a detailed case for increased federal emphasis on CCS. A few quotes (emphasis added):

"The US Government must move expeditiously to large-scale, properly instrumented, sustained demonstration of CO2 sequestration, with the goal of providing a stable regulatory framework for commercial operation."

“Real world” retrofit decisions will be taken only after evaluation of numerous site-specific factors.

CO2 capture cost reduction is important.

A robust US post-combustion capture/oxy-combustion/ultra-supercritical plant R&D effort requires about US$1 [billion per] year for the next decade.

The Federal Government should dramatically expand the scale and scope for utility-scale commercial viability demonstration of advanced coal conversion plants with CO2 capture.

The program should specifically include demonstration of retrofit and rebuild options for existing coal power plants. New government management approaches with greater flexibility and new government funding approaches with greater certainty are a prerequisite for an effective program.

Time is of the essence.

About a year ago, Moniz sat down with The Energy Switch Project to document his views across the full range of conventional and renewable energies, and related technologies. I’ve pasted below two out-takes, where he comments on coal, CCS and carbon pricing.

In the video above, Moniz makes the following statements (abridged transcript):

"Coal of course is a very widely used fuel, particularly for the power sector, with the US China and India combined using about 60 per cent of the world's coal. So if we're going forward particularly with carbon control in the future, we simply have to figure out a way to employ coal.

The answer has to be then for a serious solution: the ability to capture CO2 and sequester it underground. The problem right now is cost. Today we would probably be adding six, seven, eight cents per kilowatt-hour to electricity produced by coal… For a brand new coal plant, we're probably talking that’s on top of six to seven cents. So let's call it a doubling of the cost at the plant of the production of electricity.

We might or might not be willing to pay that in the United States, but it is very difficult to understand China and India being willing to pay this kind of a premium.

Do I believe today we can start safely injecting billions of tons into an appropriate reservoir? Absolutely. That’s a different statement however to do with 30, 40, or 50 years, however, and I think those things will work out as we do it.

The other near-term issue is that we really have very little idea as to how to regulate, how to assign liability [for CCS]. The EPA is in fact working on this, but certainly it cannot be based on the old types of regulatory structures put in place for water injection."

From the same interview, he also comments on carbon pricing, saying:

"Certainly it will never be cheaper to capture and store CO2 than it is to release it into the atmosphere so the reason we’re doing it in fact is because carbon will have a price and ultimately it has to be cheaper to capture and store it than to release it and pay a price.

If we start really squeezing down on carbon dioxide over the next two decades, that [price] could double, it could eventually triple.

I think inevitably if we squeeze down on carbon, we squeeze up on the cost, it brings along with it a push towards efficiency, it brings along with a push towards clean technologies in a conventional pollution sense. It brings along with it a push towards security. After all, the security issues revolve around carbon-bearing fuels.

Now, I think it is very important that any funds associated with that be recycled efficiently to productive uses and to address distributional questions because some of the poor may bet hit harder. There’s a lot of work to do, but in the end, if you take one simple thing, that’s the direction I think we need to go in."

You can check out a continuous stream of Moniz’ full 22-minute interview on Vimeo, or pick and choose Moniz’ comments on a single topic, in short 1-2 minute segments, the interview is conveniently split into shorts by topic.

This post expresses the views of this author and not necessarily of their organisation or the Global CCS Institute.
01 Jul 2013 | Brian Cartwright

The CCS industry has a lot to prove if it is to be adopted on a large scale to mitigate climate effects of energy plants. There is much discussion of the energy inefficiency of the process, the cumbersome task of burying CO2 when only the C is a problem, questioning of the long-term stability of underground locations to be used, and the cost of the process, which apparently would be borne by energy consumers.
One area that doesn't get much attention, though, is whether it fundamentally makes sense. CO2 is not toxic; it is an essential part of natural cycles which is simply out of balance in the environment. Are there alternative means of sequestering carbon? Yes, and we only need to look to the world's soils to find places where carbon is in severe deficit because of industrial agriculture. Innovations like holistic grazing soil-priming cover crops and no-till cropping offer ways to rebuild carbon-rich soils, and the developing technology of biochar offers a stable soil amendment that securely sequester carbon where it belongs and is badly needed.

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03 Jun 2013 | Adam Aston

A day after Moniz was unanimously confirmed to his new post by the US Senate, a senior Dept. of Energy official emphasized the continuity of priorities as Moniz takes over from his predecessor.

Speaking at the Carbon Capture, Utilization and Sequestration Conference in Pittsburgh on May 17th, acting DOE Fossil Energy chief Chris Smith reiterated the agency's ongoing commitment to CCS.

In his keynote, Smith affirmed the DOE's recent shift to emphasize the utilization of CO2 to enhance oil recovery, as well as for industrial processes.

Smith also added that, given the rapid rise in U.S. production and consumption of natural gas, the DOE would increase the development of technologies to carbon capture from natural gas.

For more on Smith's keynote, check out Martin Schneider's coverage of the Pittsburgh conference in /GHG Reduction Technologies Monitor/

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22 Mar 2013 | Adam Aston

Further developments.

ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism, just published a detailed rundown of Moniz' industry links, as discovered in public records.

Moniz' industry links are notable in their breadth and include conventional oil, to grid technology, to nuclear fuel, to GE, and to clean energy start-ups.

Details here:

As the story states, Moniz will have to file his own financial records as part of the confirmation process, so additional ties may yet surface.

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Adam Aston

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Adam Aston is a freelance science and technology journalist who focuses on energy, the environment and green business.