A Free-Market Energy Blog

The “Fatal Conceit” in One Letter (‘carbon-negative’ power plants ready to go!)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 3, 2014

‘You get what you pay for’ is a saying that is often invoked when the cheaper product disappoints. And when it comes to subsidizing agenda-driven intellectuals (versus open-minded scholars), you also get what you pay for–and way too much of it.

Such is the case in the greatly over-financed climate change/energy transformation field where the participants assume what must be debated.

Recently, the New York Times published a letter-to-the-editor under the title Carbon Capture. The missive stuck me as a problematic one in its public-policy leanings. And it (negatively) impressed me as an example of intellectual conceit,with both the problem and the solution being wildly exaggerated.

Here it is:

Possibly Unavoidable Answer on Climate,” by Eduardo Porter (Economic Scene, Nov. 20), is commendable for its recognition that we are in a race against time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

His confidence in nuclear energy as a means for heading off the impending crisis, however, is misplaced for several reasons, the most important of which is that technology is available that can be scaled up far more rapidly, cheaply and with no risks to the health and safety of adjacent communities.

Capturing carbon from air is now possible in a way that not only eliminates emissions but also reduces carbon levels and uses carbon for business purposes.

One such “carbon negative” power plant that I helped create is fully operational at SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute) in California. Others are coming online and attracting investors.

Carbon-negative technologies are essential, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, after years of policy makers’ procrastination. They also offer a way to transfer clean energy technology to developing countries, whose economic growth now depends on steadily increasing, disastrous use of fossil fuels.

New York, Nov. 22, 2013

- The writer, a professor of economics and statistics at Columbia University, is director of the Columbia Consortium for Risk Management.

Assume the problem and then trumpet the solution–but don’t mention cost. Economics and opportunity cost matter not when the earth is in the balance, right?

Wrong! How about false problem, false solution—but good enough for the New York Times to take at face value. [1] (One can surmise that the lofty credentials of the author, doctorates and publications aplenty, were reasons for the pass.)

Here is a description of Chichilnisky‘s “low cost” Global Thermostat technology:

Her most recent venture is the Global Thermostat (globalthermostat.com) pilot plant in Silicon Valley, California. The technology takes waste heat from a solar-generating plant and puts it to good use, thanks to a refined chemical process that (apparently) sucks carbon out of the air, before sequestering it underground. The fact that, according to Chichilnisky, they are able to reallocate this low-cost energy is key: other carbon-capture techniques have come unstuck because they consume too much energy to sequester the carbon, making them uneconomic. Global Thermostat estimated that its process can remove 5lb of CO2 per kWh of electricity, as opposed to coal-fired power stations which currently (in the US) emit 2lb of CO2 for every kWh of electricity created.

Chichilnisky’s claims her innovation reverses the “current paradigm” in which the more energy is created the more emissions are created. With her pilot plant she insists that the more energy is produced, the more carbon emissions are reduced. This is a bridge too far for many environmentalists who believe the only way to avert disaster is to turn out the lights – yesterday. Global Thermostat is the embodiment of the optimistic belief in a “technical fix” to global warming, but Chichilnisky is determined to prove it is also economically viable. “The first principle of creating change is you have to make the change profitable,” she says.

The technology, developed by “a brain trust of leading experts in the fields of energy, science and climate policy,” was put together by Peter Eisenberger, Chichilnisky, Edgar Bronfman, and Benjamin Bronfman.

Do you want to invest? Do you want the U.S. taxpayer to invest? Or captive ratepayers to involuntarily pay? A “no,” “no,” “no” is a reasonable answer.


  1. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Below is an excerpt from an article on Global Thermostat’s speculative technology that indicates capturing carbon from the air would be cost prohibitive: $600 to $1000 per ton! Peter Eisenberger seems like a mad scientist out of Batman comic book. He wouldn’t be proposing to use co-generation technology unless his method of extracting CO2 from the air was already not economically feasible. In the water industry there have been several patented co-generation technologies to remove salt from oceanwater, but all are still way too expensive. Same would apply to pulling CO2 from the air. The excerpts below state no less than both the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences have assessed carbon capture from air technologies and found them uneconomic. Read below:

    Rethinking Carbon Dioxide:
    From a Pollutant to an Asset

    Mark Gunther


    There’s no doubt that CO2 can be removed from the air using chemical processes. That’s how people can breathe on submarines or in spaceships. But the conventional wisdom among scientists is that it’s expensive and therefore impractical to do air capture on a global scale. Last year, a committee of the the American Physical Society produced a 100-page technology assessment, called Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Chemicals, which estimated that the cost of an air capture system would be “of the order of $600 or more per metric ton of CO2.” The report concluded: “Direct air capture is not currently an economically viable approach to mitigating climate change.”

    Howard Herzog, an MIT professor, argues that it makes more sense to capture CO2 from the flue gas of power plants, where concentrations are higher — about 12 percent for coal plants or 4 percent for natural gas plants. (In the air, CO2 levels remain under 400 parts per million, which means that less than 0.04 percent of the air is CO2.) Herzog says anyone who claims that they can capture CO2 from the air at a low cost is “either not being totally honest or they’re deluding themselves.” He co-authored a peer-reviewed study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that estimated the cost of air capture at “on the order of $1,000 per ton of CO2.”


  2. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Here is an abstract and the online link to the assessment of airborne carbon capture from the National Academy of Sciences.

    Economic and energetic analysis of capturing CO2 from ambient air
    1. Kurt Zenz Housea,b,1,
    2. Antonio C. Bacligb,
    3. Manya Ranjanc,
    4. Ernst A. van Nieropb,
    5. Jennifer Wilcoxd, and
    6. Howard J. Herzog

    Edited by M. Granger Morgan, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, and approved September 14, 2011 (received for review August 20, 2010)

    Link: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/51/20428.short

    Capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (“air capture”) in an industrial process has been proposed as an option for stabilizing global CO2 concentrations. Published analyses suggest these air capture systems may cost a few hundred dollars per tonne of CO2, making it cost competitive with mainstream CO2 mitigation options like renewable energy, nuclear power, and carbon dioxide capture and storage from large CO2 emitting point sources. We investigate the thermodynamic efficiencies of commercial separation systems as well as trace gas removal systems to better understand and constrain the energy requirements and costs of these air capture systems. Our empirical analyses of operating commercial processes suggest that the energetic and financial costs of capturing CO2 from the air are likely to have been underestimated. Specifically, our analysis of existing gas separation systems suggests that, unless air capture significantly outperforms these systems, it is likely to require more than 400 kJ of work per mole of CO2, requiring it to be powered by CO2-neutral power sources in order to be CO2 negative. We estimate that total system costs of an air capture system will be on the order of $1,000 per tonne of CO2, based on experience with as-built large-scale trace gas removal systems.


  3. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Here is the Executive Summary of the American Physical Society’s assessment of Peter Eisenberger’s carbon capture technology with the online link where it can be found:

    Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Chemicals
    A Technology Assessment for the American Physical Society Panel on Public Affairs
    June 1, 2011

    Link: http://www.aps.org/policy/reports/assessments/upload/dac2011.pdf

    Executive Summary
    This report explores direct air capture (DAC) of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere with chemicals. DAC involves a system in which ambient air flows over a chemical sorbent that selectively removes the CO2. The CO2 is then released as a concentrated stream for disposal or reuse, while the sorbent is regenerated and the CO2-depleted air is returned to the atmosphere.

    To guide the reader to an understanding of the factors affecting costs, a benchmark system is introduced that could e built today. With optimistic assumptions about some important technical parameters, the cost of this system is estimated to be of the order of $600 or more per metric ton of CO2. Significant uncertainties in the process parameters result in a wide, asymmetric range associated with this estimate, with higher values being more likely than lower ones. Thus, DAC is not currently an economically viable approach to mitigating climate change. Any commercially interesting DAC system would require significantly lower avoided CO2 costs, and thus would likely have a design very different from the benchmark system investigated in this report.

    This report identifies some of the key issues that need to be addressed in alternative designs. The physical scale of the air contactor in any DAC system is a formidable challenge. A typical contactor will capture about 20 tons of CO2 per year for each square meter of area through which the air flows. Since a 1000-megawatt coal power plant emits about six million metric tons of CO2 per year, a DAC system consisting of structures 10-meters high that removes CO2 from the atmosphere as fast as this coal plant emits CO2 would require structures whose total length would be about 30 kilometers. Large quantities of construction materials and chemicals would be required. It is likely that the full cost of the benchmark DAC system scaled to capture six million metric tons of CO2 per year would be much higher than alternative strategies providing equivalent decarbonized electricity. As a result, even if costs fall significantly, coherent CO2 mitigation would result in the deployment of DAC only after nearly all significant point sources of fossil CO2 emissions are eliminated, either by substitution of non-fossil alternatives or by capture of nearly all of their CO2 emissions.
    Nonetheless, DAC is one of a small number of strategies that might allow the world someday to lower the atmospheric concentration of CO2 . The wide-open science and engineering issues that will determine ultimate feasibility and
    competitiveness involve alternative strategies for moving the air and alternative chemical routes to sorption and regeneration.

    Ultimate judgments about the future role for DAC and its future cost are necessarily constrained by the scarcity of experimental results for DAC systems. No demonstration or pilot-scale DAC system has yet been deployed anywhere on
    earth, and it is entirely possible that no DAC concept under discussion today or yet to be invented will actually succeed in practice. Nonetheless, DAC has entered policy discussions and deserves close analysis. This report provides insights into how DAC relates to greenhouse gas emissions.

    This report was prepared for the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA). POPA routinely produces reports on timely topics so as to inform the debate with the perspectives of physicists and other scientists working in the relevant issue
    areas, including energy and the environment. Most reports prepared for POPA are policy studies, often making policy recommendations and suggesting priorities for research support. This report, by contrast, is a technology assessment and contains no policy or funding recommendations. The analysis is the outcome of a two-year study conducted by a 13-member committee whose members work in industry, academia, and national and government laboratories.


  4. Tom Tanton  

    If true, Dr. Chichilnisky has a very bright future…I don’t know why somebody who can simultaneously change second law of thermodynamics and create a perpetual motion machine shouldn’t recieve a Nobel, although I’m still not sure about ol First Law.


  5. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.  

    There is one acid test for carbon capture from any combustion energy process. Without mandated subsidies, without mandated purchases, without regulating their competitors out of existence, will private equity sources fund it? There have been enough DoE development projects and funding; this technology must stand or fall on its own merits. If it generates an acceptable ROI, trillions will flow into it; the capitalists will be able to buy Warren Buffet with their pocket change.

    The good doctors should put their life savings where their words are. For bulk supply man only has carbon and uranium as prime fuels. The green energies all cost too much. Those nations who fight reality are failing.


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