Friday, November 9, 2007

Discussing Energy Infrastructure with MIT ESD PhD student Jim McFarland...

Jim McFarland (please note the glamour shot), MIT PhD student in ESD, lead a very interesting discussion on "Energy Infrastructure from the Vantage Point of Carbon Capture and Sequestration" this past Wed in the MIT Energy Club Discussion Series.

The discussion focused much more on energy infrastructure than CCS, but that was just fine. Jim started out the session by handing out copies of an incredibly thorough mind map categorizing the energy field. I highly encourage people to get copies of this. Hopefully, Jim won't charge. :)

The session began with a discussion about what we even mean by "energy infrastructure"? It was easy for us all to agree that transmission lines, distribution lines, and fuel pipelines clearly represent infrastructure, but through the discussion I believe most of us came to agree that energy infrastructure also includes power plants, gas stations, as well as the human and knowledge capital required to keep the industry going.

The discussion ranged about a bit, but here are a few other highlights....

David Danielson posed the question of whether energy infrastructure is truly underinvested in right now, as is widely claimed, or not. This led to the question of what it is that limits/determines the amount of investment that is made in infrastructure. Rich Sears, MIT visitng scientist from Shell, succinctly answered this question: profit-seeking companies determine their infrastructure investments by 1.) determining how much capital they have to invest and 2.) what are the most profitable ways to invest that capital. Pretty simple. :)

There was an interesting discussion on the difficulty of siting power lines/pipelines. The key difficulty is gaining rights to build/cross over privately owned land. Important solutions discussed included 1.) compensating private land owners for the right to cross their land (a la what we have seen with wind turbines - Rich Sears quoted a farmer he had seen interviewed who had a relatively loud wind turbine on his land saying "Sounds like money to me.".) and 2.) creating positive public perception of the benefits of the project to the general public in the region where transmission/pipeline rights are needed. One student from Kansas pointed out that the coal and natural gas lobbies have been fighting it out in the newspapers trying to change public opinion one way and the other in terms of siting new coal or gas power generation facilities. Although it sounded from what she said that these companies had unfortunately resorted to fear-mongering and xenophobia, students in the discussion realized that public relations campaigns are critical for any project requiring siting. Ideally, this is done in a more honest spirit, educating the public about the true benefits of the project.

The CCS portion of the discussion was very interesting. It was discussed that plenty of enhanced oil recovery projects have been done for many years by the big oil companies. BP's recent cancellation of the Carson City EOR project was highlighted as an example of the difficulties inherent in building new energy infrastructure. It was stated by one attendee that the project failed because of PR campaign in southern CA by some environmental groups telling the public that there was a danger that CO2 from the project could flood the entire LA basin, asphixiating the whole town. This is clearly silly, but it killed the project.

It was pointed out that CCS demo projects should be done with the explicity purpose of demonstrating the viability of CCS and that they should be performed in the locations with the most suitable geologies, not necessarily where existing energy infrastructure and human capital are concentrated. This would allow for demonstrations and careful measurement/validation while mitigating the risk of having a CCS project shut down by negative public opinion.

On a personal note, I have been thinking a lot about public perception about different sources of energy. It has become clear to me that the general public perception is that CCS is not green or clean, with perhaps a bit more of a yellowish hue. How can the CCS folks change this image? Perhaps by co-siting all CCS demo projects with wind and solar projects.... They better, if they want to have even the possibility of building out CCS at the scale that will be required to make a dent in CO2 emissions going forward in the next 5, 10, 15 years.....

3 comments:

Anup Bandivadekar said...

One of the problems with public perception about CCS is that majority of the public is barely aware of the technology and it's potential benefits and risks. See work done by Tom Curry (TPP alum). See also this fun bloomberg article.

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