Carbon Capture

Energy analyst Faeth says water-intensive CCS could disqualify technology in some regions

Could carbon capture and storage technology's high water usage make CCS irrelevant in water-stressed regions of the United States? During today's OnPoint, Paul Faeth, a senior fellow and director of the Energy, Water and Climate Division at CNA, explains how the Department of Energy and U.S. EPA are engaging on the water use issue and talks about how some regions of the U.S. are mitigating the impacts of electric power demands on water.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint, I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Paul Faeth, senior fellow and director of the Energy, Water and Climate Division at CNA. Paul, thanks for coming on the show.

Paul Faeth: Good to see you again, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Paul, you recently completed a study on water use in the power sector in China, India, France and Texas. Carbon capture and storage technology is front and center in the energy and climate debate right now. What did you find on CSS's impact on water?

Paul Faeth: What you see is, because of the inefficiencies that occur because of carbon capture, that you actually double the amount of water use for carbon capture in talking about coal, and you increase it by about 70 percent for natural gas.

Monica Trauzzi: So this isn't something we hear a whole lot about.

Paul Faeth: No.

Monica Trauzzi: It's not one of the top-line issues.

Paul Faeth: No, it really isn't.

Monica Trauzzi: What are DOE and EPA doing to address it, and who has jurisdiction over this?

Paul Faeth: Well, in terms of the research, DOE has the charge to try to reduce the costs of carbon capture and storage, which is now 70 percent more than standard coal, to about 35 percent more. But water use itself is managed at the state level and at the county level, so there isn't a federal agency that manages water. What's interesting, though, is that even though EPA manages the power sector, which uses about half of all water withdrawals in the United States, they don't actually manage the water quantity that's used in the power sector. So that basically is not managed at all, except perhaps at the state level.

Monica Trauzzi: At one point the National Energy Technology Lab, which is a DOE lab, was estimating a potential increase in water usage of 80 percent by 2030 with CCS. What does this mean for areas that are already water stressed?

Paul Faeth: It likely means that they won't use it, and there's a couple reasons why they won't. The water is a very clear one. If you don't have the water availability, it's just a non-starter to double the amount of water you're using in the power sector. But there are also things that might be cheaper. For example, energy efficiency is very inexpensive compared to any other option. Natural gas uses half the water that coal uses, a lot less, even with the CCS, and then things like wind or PV, which don't use any water at all. So there are other options that are very cost-competitive in addition to the option that CCS could possibly be used someday in the future.

Monica Trauzzi: What about developing new technology that would help mitigate the water issues? Is there an effort behind that?

Paul Faeth: So far as I know, the answer is no, but it's something that clearly in the agenda of looking at CCS it would be very helpful to look at, but so far as I have seen, and I've asked experts who work in this field, that there is not a way currently known to use dry cooling, meaning no water at all, for CCS. It has to be wet cooled, and the methods, like I said, they almost double for coal the amount of water use, which is very problematic in places like the South and Southwest United States. It would be very difficult in the West to do CCS with coal.

Monica Trauzzi: So the timing of this is really interesting. We just saw EPA release its New Source Performance Standards for new power plants, we're expecting the existing source rule early next year, so it begs the question, what kind of modeling is the agency using when they create their regulations? How is water factoring into that modeling?

Paul Faeth: It doesn't factor in at all. In fact, for the DOE and for EPA, there are no energy policy models that actually include water. So you can't look at it and be able to actually model it, or to look at water as a constraint to power production. So it's one of the reasons why we did the analysis that we did, is to be able to actually build a model that had water in it so we could look at some of these questions.

Monica Trauzzi: So you studied Texas, talk about what they're doing there to mitigate some of the impacts of electric power demands on water.

Paul Faeth: They're doing a couple things. They do have an energy efficiency program. It's not as aggressive as in some states but still it's moving forward. The big thing for Texas, two items. They're going away from coal and whole hog for natural gas. They're really going very aggressively. There's no new coal being built in Texas. Everything new, basically, is either natural gas or it's wind. And for wind, they now have more wind than any state in the U.S. They're going very aggressively. Wind is now competitive with natural gas in Texas, and they're just in the process of completing a new transmission line to bring wind from West Texas into the population centers. So our analysis shows that the path that they're on will dramatically reduce water use over time. Obviously they had a huge drought in 2011, there were almost blackouts there. Without wind they actually almost certainly would have had blackouts if that had been coal. And so they're looking to make these changes. And one very interesting fact as well is that these changes are also dramatically reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Even though it's not part of the policies that they're pursuing, and they're not actually very favorable towards climate policy, nevertheless the actions that they're taking are actually, we expect, will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Monica Trauzzi: What's your view on the role that coal should play in the U.S.'s energy future?

Paul Faeth: I think it's not the best option, and right now we're seeing, for example, that coal is being pushed out of the market by shale gas, and there's even a lot of shale gas being actually just burned off right now, so we're not even capturing from like the Barnett and the Bakken and et cetera all the gas that's available. So my expectation is that coal will be used less and less over time in the United States to be replaced by shale, to be replaced by efficiency and other renewables. There will probably be some residual coal, but it's not the cheapest thing and it's environmentally not the best thing either.

Monica Trauzzi: So are all these efforts that we're seeing to develop CCS technology, a lot of money on the line, are they futile? I mean, is this dead on arrival? What do you think?

Paul Faeth: It would be great to have it in our back pocket. Nobody knows how these things are going to work out, so I think it's definitely worth the effort to try to figure out these questions, you know. Can you make it cost-effective? Can you figure out the water concerns? And even CCS with natural gas is not a bad option either, so it can be used for coal or gas, not just coal. But just given prices and whatnot of where we seem to be headed and for the next 35 years, it doesn't look like coal is going to be very favorable anyway, and the regulations, to me at least, seem to be locking in what the market is already saying should happen in future power production.

Monica Trauzzi: In China the story is a little different. Water is a very critical issue there. Coal use is also very high. How do they navigate that?

Paul Faeth: China is in a box. It's a very difficult situation. Most of their power is coming from coal now, more than 80 percent. It's very inexpensive, but they've got all sorts of air quality problems. So a couple things that they could do. They could go, you know, more efficiency, which they have some fairly good efficiency programs, but they could push harder on that. They could go nuclear, and to avoid the water problems you could use marine cooling instead of freshwater cooling. They're moving the coal away from areas that have the highest amount of water problems and they're building a lot of hydropower also in the south where there's lots and lots of water, and then transmission lines. So a huge dam-building program in the southern parts of Asia and even dams in neighboring countries to capture that power and then send it back. Gas, if they were to develop shale gas in China, their reserves are about half again larger than ours. If they were able to do that that would be a very, very good option, but no one knows how that will work out.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there, Paul, thank you for coming on the show.

Paul Faeth: All right.

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

[End of Audio]



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