PNNL's Davis discusses U.S.-China partnership on carbon capture and storage

Can the United States and China form a successful partnership to develop and deploy carbon capture and storage technology? During today's OnPoint, Mike Davis, associate lab director for energy and environment at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a former assistant secretary for conservation and renewable energy at the Department of Energy, discusses PNNL's plan for a U.S.-China partnership on emissions reduction. He explains how the United States can successfully engage China on environmental issues and discusses the benefits of a partnership, rather than competition, between the two nations.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Mike Davis, associate lab director for Energy and Environment at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a former assistant secretary for Conservation and Renewable Energy at DOE. Mike, it's great to have you on the show.

Mike Davis: Great to be here, thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Mike, with all the attention is being paid to engaging China and India on climate change you've been working on a plan for the U.S. and China to essentially join forces on the development of carbon capture and storage technology. What's the reasoning behind the partnership like that? I mean can't we also benefit by these two nations competing against one another to create these technologies?

Mike Davis: Well, we can always benefit from competition, but there's also a time for cooperation and the rate at which problems are evolving globally compared to the rate at which we're solving problems globally, we need to solve problems faster. And when it comes to the climate, something as important as our global climate, our rate of progress is not sufficient. We absolutely have to find ways to go faster. And I'm convinced, and I think many others are, that a partnership with China allows us to do that.

Monica Trauzzi: So, is there a certain expertise that China can bring to the table that maybe we don't have here and vice versa? I mean is this as much about bringing minds together as it is about maybe a cash issue?

Mike Davis: Oh, it's much more about minds. The intellectual capacity, the scientific capacity, the 1,300,000,000 population that China has and their view of the challenges lines up in some interesting ways with our views, but they're a little bit different. The Chinese have said repeatedly they have three problems; energy, water, and health. And when they say health they mean human health more so than planetary health. They see the CO2 challenge as a little different than we do. They see us in terms of a global emitter. Our cumulative emissions far exceed theirs. Our per capita emissions far exceed theirs. And many of the emission technologies that we've already developed and we've used effectively in this country to reduce emissions, they haven't. So when they talk about emissions, when they talk about water and health, they're talking about emissions other than CO2. They're talking about SOX and NOX and mercury and particulates. And over forty years we've taken 70 percent of those pollutants out of the air here in this country. We've focused on that. They still have that ground to cover, so they don't really see CO2 as an immediate health issue in terms of human health or water issue in terms of water pollution. But they see more of the other emissions. Well, we're working with them in terms of getting all emissions, not just the ones we've already made progress on, but CO2 as well. And we believe we can do that in an integrated fashion with the Chinese and, again, much faster than we could on our own.

Monica Trauzzi: At the recent G-8 summit countries were unable to agree on long-term targets on climate change. So how does the U.S. successfully engage China, because that does seem to be one of the hurdles here that we can't seem to get on the same page as them? I mean convince us all that this, a partnership like this, can actually happen.

Mike Davis: Well, of course there's a lot of different levels of government and industry and even the science community that need to be involved in this. But I can speak to this from the science and engineering level and, to some extent, from the private sector. I've spent a lot of time there. The view there is that, in fact, we have developed over time a whole series of unit processes to deal with environmental emissions and we've been very good at it and as we've seen the problem we've attacked the problem. So four decades ago we decided that particulates were a problem, soot, and we developed processes to take those out of the air. Great! About a decade later we decided that acid rain was a problem, SOX, developed another unit process, and basically were successful. Then NOX or smog, then mercury and now CO2, but we don't have a solution for CO2 yet. So, if I'm China and I'm going wait a minute, we now understand the problem a little differently. If 40 years ago we would have said, you know what, we really can't have any emissions from the use of coal other than water, oxygen, and nitrogen, everything else we have to deal with. If we would have taken that view of the problem 40 years ago we'd have a solution today. We've taken 70 percent of those other emissions out of the air. So in working with the Chinese, because they're not quite as far along, we've suggested let's develop an integrated process and get them all. And if we can get them all in an integrated process that doesn't cost any more to operate than our unit processes we already employ, then they essentially get CO2 control for free.

Monica Trauzzi: The Obama administration is putting a significant amount of money towards the FutureGen project. Can that be done in conjunction with a partnership like this or should we not be putting money towards doing stuff on our own and only be working with China? I mean is that a successful project?

Mike Davis: Well, I think it can be and we actually started…some of our people at the laboratory were a lot of the intellectual capacity behind FutureGen, and we actually recruited Chinese engagement in that process. And along the way they started their own project called GreenGen and then along the way we canceled our FutureGen project. The Chinese sometimes are confused about our stops and starts. They believe it's fundamentally important. They're proceeding with their GreenGen project and it may well actually be ahead now of our FutureGen project. But that has to do with more of new technology to use coal. We really have to deal with the existing coal combustion fleet, the processes that already use coal and they're staggering. If we're not successful in dealing with existing infrastructure and the way we burn coal on a global basis then our ability to really affect climate change is quite limited.

Monica Trauzzi: Switching gears, you're in DC this week for the national town meeting on demand response. Your lab is a leader in Smart Grid research. Coming off of the millions of dollars that have been set aside in the stimulus for the Smart Grid, what are some of the key challenges that are still hindering us from getting off the ground?

Mike Davis: Well, great question. A little bit of motivation to answer it. We make half our electricity from coal. The Chinese make 80 percent of their electricity from coal. So we're making electricity and we're moving it and we're using it and obviously our electric infrastructure is hugely important to how efficiently we use that electricity. You know, we can use it more efficiently, we either burn less coal or we have to build fewer plants and wind up burning less coal. That's important to both of us. The Chinese understand that very well, so they're really trying to build a national grid to operate in the most efficient manner possible. We're trying to improve ours to the point where it operates efficiently. And one of the challenges associated with that is that we've actually operated our electric infrastructure so well that people take it for granted. The power for your cameras and your lights is probably going to stay on during this interview, so we have a wonderful system and it's been reliable and it's been very low cost and now there's a number of additional expectations we'd like it to be able to deal with. We'd like it to onboard a bunch of renewables. We'd like it to be more efficient. We'd like it to maybe power transportation. We'd like it to help deal with our carbon footprints. Well, the grid wasn't really designed to do those things and it's not currently being operated to do those things. So long story short, the biggest challenge is actually not new technology. We have a lot of technology we could use. The biggest challenge is actually the business models and the regulatory structures that are in place that allowed us to build the grid and now we have to change to be able to change how it operates.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we're going to end it right there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show, very interesting stuff.

Mike Davis: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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