Op-Ed: Clean Power Plan should give more than a nod to natural gas R&D

The greatest enemy to our clean energy future might not be Big Oil but wishful thinking based on old paradigms.

By Greg Hernandez, Marketing Manager at R.W. Lyall

Most of us are familiar with the long-held paradigm for fighting climate change: Avoid the use of fossil fuels as much as possible, no matter what. While all paradigms are limiting in some way, this one may be downright destructive—at least when it comes to our world’s clean energy future. And here’s why.

Fossil Fuels Aren’t Going Anywhere

The fight against climate change is inevitably a global one. And, despite all of the wishful thinking in the world, our transition to clean energy will be slow. To explain this idea, I like to refer to University of New Hampshire Energy Professor V. K. Mathur, a long-time thought leader on the topic of our clean energy future. In a recent article in the New Hampshire Business Review, Mathur writes, “No matter how you cut it, there will be no progress in the fight against climate change without development of technologies that make fossil fuels less polluting.”

His reason? Many poorer and faster-growing nations need power now, and they need it cheap. That’s why, despite concerns about global warming, the worldwide use of fossil fuels continues to grow. And the worst part is that the biggest polluter—coal—is also the cheapest source. Mathur refers to a report this year by a well-known environmental research group that shows that 1,500 new coal plants are either set for, or under, construction around the world as we speak.

In light of this reality, the transition to clean energy must be perceived as just that—a transition. And a very gradual one requiring investment in more transitional technologies incorporating what the world can afford—fossil fuels.

Can the clean power plan help?

There just might be some hope here at home. That is, if we can do something about that pesky paradigm. As it stands, a great amount of the plan’s money is distributed through the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), which gives funds to states and tribes to remove investment barriers to energy efficiency and solar technologies and to encourage early investment in zero-emissions power generation. But, it might better benefit the world as a whole if more money were going toward research into affordable technologies that lessen the impact of fossil fuels.

Enter CCS Technology

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) works by capturing carbon emissions from power plants and storing those emissions underground. The problem is that, while traditional CCS keeps emissions out of the air, it’s very expensive. Not only does the process demand large amounts of energy from the power plant it serves, it also treats captured emissions as waste stored underground (not a super comfortable approach). Both of these problems are huge disincentives for developing nations with access to cheap coal.

According to Mathur, we must come up with a market-competitive, cleaner CCS process if we want to promote widespread adoption.

A new CCS Technology

If expense and waste are the greatest barriers to the adoption of existing CCS systems, a new technology being developed by New England company FuelCell Energy could be the solution. Just last month, the company secured major backing from ExxonMobil to continue its innovative approach. FuelCell’s system takes the carbon emissions that would be discarded as waste, and it converts them into fuel to generate even more power. It also captures up to 90% of a power plant’s total carbon emissions. Add it together, and you get cheap, clean power with very little waste—a bit of a win-win.

Referring to FuelCell’s CCS technology, Mathur writes, “It’s going to take innovative technologies like this one to make a real difference in the climate battle. Reducing emissions in the U.S. through expensive government support of renewables or costly regulation is not a replicable model for developing nations. They need low cost, technological solutions to help them cut emissions while meeting surging electricity demand.”

The Takeaway

From Zimbabwe to Seattle, we all share the same atmosphere, so the fight against climate change has to be a shared endeavor. With the research dollars available to us in the U.S., we have the potential to help make the transition to clean energy smoother and quicker. But it’s going to take a paradigm shift and the abandonment of some widespread wishful thinking.

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