CCS-Enabled Clean Firm Energy: A Needed Portfolio Addition to Meet California’s Emissions Targets


California is leading the charge in taking proactive action against climate change. From low carbon fuel standards, to aggressive GHG emission reduction targets, to the dictate that all cars sold in the state must be zero emission by 2035, to the state being net zero by 2045; California stands out. We applaud the lawmakers for these lofty, yet attainable ambitions. Their efforts are consistent and essential to achieving broader US (and international) commitments to serious GHG reductions by 2030, and to net zero by 2050. That is in 9.5 and 29.5 years respectively. 

‘Net zero’ means that all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions emitted into the atmosphere are balanced in equal measure by GHGs that are removed from the atmosphere, either through carbon sinks or carbon capture and storage (CCS). In other words, we can both avoid emissions and remove them. 

As energy carriers, electricity and hydrogen provide the means for avoiding emissions. A reliable and affordable supply of low to zero emission electricity and hydrogen is required, on demand, and consistently available no matter the level and urgency of demand. 

Assuming that wind and solar can provide enough electricity and hydrogen, particularly in the short and medium terms, is counter-productive to achieving emission reduction goals. The March 24 article, “Clean Firm Power is the Key to California’s Carbon-Free Energy Future”, in Issues in Science and Technology, cements this point with some astute observations:

  1. Depending as they do on the weather, solar and wind power, while cost competitive on a per kilowatt hour basis, can only be intermittent and, therefore, unreliable.
  2. Batteries can help, but only minimally; they sustain output for about 4 hours, but not the days and weeks demanded by a reliable electrical system.
  3. Massive overbuilding of solar and wind facilities could address their intermittency, but in California alone, this would mean building as much as 500 GW of capacity – equal to half of the entire US electricity generating capacity. 
  4. This capacity would require the land area equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined; there is some doubt about whether there is even that much land available in California for wind and solar facilities.
  5. While wind and solar are competitive on a per kilowatt hour basis, the necessary over building would increase electrical energy costs by about 65 percent.

Further to this point and issuing a call for additional power recently, the California PUC just confirmed the concern that “the potential for a destabilized electric grid and unreliable service if we fail to plan appropriately for the transition is a very serious threat… challenge remains that outages and reliability problems can seriously erode public confidence in our environmental goals for the electric sector.”

In today’s debate, it remains clear that all energy options have consequences. Nuclear is viewed as too dangerous; ethanol is viewed as tantamount to burning food; hydroelectric power, to the extent that any opportunity for much more of it still exists, unacceptably ruins habitat. 

In advocating for wind and solar to be central sources of energy, some demand that fossil fuel energy be shut down completely. However, the choice does not have to be “binary”, with zero emissions equaling no fossil fuel produced power. Nor must the choice polarize us politically. Success in meeting global energy demands from 7.7 billion people while rapidly reducing emissions requires that we accept energy reality; it’s important to acknowledge that fossil fuels are the primary global energy source in 2021, and will continue to be for many decades to come. 

This is where CCS provides a breakthrough. If we accept that the objective here is to do away with GHG emissions rather than fossil fuels, why not produce electricity using natural gas, for example, while capturing the emissions in the process? Why not use natural gas to produce blue hydrogen – a practical, emissions-free transportation fuel – while capturing the GHG emissions? Why engage this difficult fight against already built and operating fossil fuel infrastructure, which will displace many workers and inevitably delay necessary action on climate change even further, when CCS allows for collaboration to defeat GHG emissions? Why risk an unreliable power supply and higher costs that could erode the public support critical to its success? 

Fossil fuel-derived electrical power is easily scalable, relatively inexpensive, already widely available, and it is reliable (firm). If produced using CCS to capture emissions, it is also clean.

The “half empty” view might be that support for CCS is subsidy to the fossil fuel industry. The “half full” view is that support for CCS is a portfolio solution to climate action initiatives that can tap into almost infinite pools of pension, foundation and endowment, and other investment capital to spur green projects, sustain jobs, and create many new ones across California and elsewhere.