Biology: Coal plant 'help' with climate change nothing short of a miracle

·3 min read
Steve Rissing
Steve Rissing

The Washington Post recently described the odd situation of a North Dakota coal industry group advocating for electric vehicles. This in a state where coal’s fossil fuel friends, the oil industry, disdain the concept.

According to the Post, the idea depends on “…a long-shot project to (capture and) store carbon emissions in deep underground wells."

Inside Climate News recently reported on similar efforts by advocates proposing to retrofit carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology at North Dakota’s largest coal-fired generating plant. Coal Creek Station and its nearby mine employ almost 800 people; they see the technology as a “godsend.”

Clean air advocates, on the other hand, see it “as an expensive distraction from the urgent need to embrace cleaner options to help address climate change.”

With the infrastructure bill passed and other proposals to address climate change, powerful coal industry interests have increased efforts to advocate for CCS technology.

When I read about hopes for CCS technology, I think of the iconic Sidney Harris cartoon depicting two scientists at a chalk board full of equations. One says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two” while pointing to a statement among the equations that reads, “then a miracle occurs.”

Miracles, almost by definition, violate the Laws of Thermodynamics; CCS gets close to qualifying. To understand this, think of the often-told parable of a gossip seeking absolution for mistruths they have spread. Their spiritual advisor tells them to take a feather pillow to the top of a nearby hill and release the feathers to the wind.

The gossip returns and says, “That wasn’t too hard.”

“But that’s not your penance,” the advisor replies; “now go capture them all and sequester them back in the pillow.”

“That’s impossible!” gasps the gossip.

“My point exactly!” says the advisor.

That’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of entropy: All things, including burning fossils, tend toward disorder. Only adding energy into the system can reverse the effect.

Green plants transform sunlight energy when they bind atmospheric carbon dioxide with water and make sugars. They and everything that eats them directly or indirectly use that energy building bodies and staying alive.

Burning fossil fuels formed over hundreds of millions of years releases that locked-away sunlight. It also, of course, liberates all that carbon dioxide captured long ago by green plants and sequestered underground through geological processes.

Reversing that with CCS requires a near-miraculous amount of energy. Ironically, some CCS advocates propose using wind-generated electricity to capture carbon dioxide emitted from coal. That reduces CCS’s carbon footprint but competes with other uses.

Advocates argue that capturing carbon dioxide on the way up a smokestack will increase CCS efficiency.

Picture grabbing feathers as they fly from that hilltop.

CCS technology aims to capture 90% of carbon dioxide from burning coal. The MIT Climate Portal estimates exhaust from a coal burning plant contains 300 times the carbon dioxide of surrounding air. Cutting that by 90% still increases atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The proposed solution: Aim for 99 percent!

The chances of that from the view of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Horsefeathers!

Steve Rissing is a professor emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Capturing carbon from burning fossil fuels needs a miracle to work

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