By Kevin Henning
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, February 26, 2023
According to NASA, the Earth is about 1.1°C warmer than it was 150 years ago, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C, emissions must be net zero by 2050. There are some new and upgraded technologies that might just let us achieve this goal. As a former oil industry worker, I certainly wish that the Earth wasn’t warming largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, wishing won’t help. Perhaps carbon capture technology will allow us to make the transition with less energy turmoil. I see scope for the new design nuclear power plants to make a difference over the next ten years. Nuclear fusion is in the news and may be a silver bullet longer term.
Abundant quantities of coal remain untapped in North America. While we will exhaust oil and natural gas reserves someday, super fracking technology has unleashed an oil and gas boom, particularly here in Texas. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) would allow the transition from fossil fuels to be less disruptive. CCS are technologies that capture carbon dioxide and store it underground, so that it does not contribute to climate change. It includes both capturing carbon dioxide from sources like coal and natural gas fired power plants and also directly from the atmosphere. The Global CCS Institute (GCCSI) champions the use of carbon capture technologies as a way to tackle climate change. Currently there are 30 operating facilities worldwide removing the equivalent of 8 million car’s CO2 emissions. GCCSI estimates we could have about 2000 by 2050. The technology is quite feasible albeit expensive. Perhaps the biggest risk involves storing it underground which could cause earth tremors and perhaps damage ground water resources. The energy industry is pushing it for obvious reasons but it is a proven technology which is being implemented worldwide and will be part of the net zero CO2 game plan.
Nuclear fission occurs when heavy uranium atoms split giving off lots of energy. Fission power generation is seeing a comeback. New design plants have potential to replace fossil fuel plants with zero carbon technology. They also can be retrofitted to existing fossil fuel power plants. The new reactor designs are the fourth generation with gen 2 and gen 3 currently providing power generation worldwide. The new designs are much safer, smaller, and generate less nuclear waste. Also, having an advanced nuclear energy industry in America is essential for our energy security and provides an opportunity to export this technology to allies around the world. This huge worldwide market can be shaped by our own scientists and engineers rather than Russia who is currently the largest supplier of nuclear technology. Fission power generation needs to grow and should be a significant part of our future energy mix. The United States has the largest amount of fission generated electricity but it is worth noting that France generates 70% of its electricity with nuclear energy.
Nuclear fusion occurs when hydrogen atoms are forced to combine to produce helium, releasing lots of energy. This is the process that powers the Sun. While hard to control, fusion holds the potential for vast amounts of carbon free energy. The news media have been full of accounts of the success at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) which produced more fusion energy than it took to start the reaction. This is truly exciting but it is worth noting that the Director of LLNL, Kimberly Budil, said “with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in the position to build a power plant.” One very positive signal for fusion energy is the expanding number of private companies organizing to research, engineer, and implement the technology. Perhaps we will see the timeline to commercial application shortened significantly. Seven companies are now pursuing fission commercialization including the behemoth Chevron Oil.
In addition to conservation, renewable/carbon neutral energy and carbon capture from fossil fuel sources, we will need to upgrade the electrical grid and implement Smart Grid technologies nationwide. This is particularly true here in Texas where the issues with our grid are far from resolved. The Smart Grid allows generators to digitally communicate with consumers allowing the electrical grid to respond quickly to changing electric demand.
There is lots to do and less than 30 years to do it. As mentioned in a previous article, putting a price on CO2 with a tax, cap and trade program, or fee and dividend concept would allow the market place to work and sort out the winning solutions.
To find out more about how to get involved with the Kendall County Democratic Party, visit www.kcdems.us or call our office at 830-331-1243.
Kevin Henning is a petroleum engineer and a local Democrat.