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What Is the Price of Net-Zero Emissions?

Roxby Hartley's picture
Senior Regulatory Consultant and Team Lead for Compliance Management EcoEngineers

Dr. Roxby Hartley is a Senior Regulatory Consultant and Team Lead for the Compliance Management services at EcoEngineers, a consulting and auditing firm that specializes in low-carbon fuels and...

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  • Dec 14, 2021
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The push to assign blame for climate change to the big environmental polluters is gaining momentum.

 

A few sectors have been responsible for generating a large percentage of the carbon emissions responsible for climate change. The large petroleum companies are blamed for the petroleum products we use; the agricultural sector for methane; and the mining, cement, and steel industries for their share of emissions. Companies in these sectors — and their outputs — have been responsible for the construction of the modern world, and demand for their products continues to grow.

 

As we have learned time and time again, enforceable regulations prevent pollution. So in many ways, we can’t blame the industry for the mess we’re in. If a company were environmentally conscious in the 1960s, then it would have been outcompeted and its market consumed by those with a cheaper product. There was no cost imperative to reduce or capture emissions.

 

Producing change meant voting in a government that addressed emissions. Take the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program in California as an example. The regulator managing the program, the California Air Resources Board (also known as CARB), takes great pains to ensure that the program works and has integrity. It is science-based, measuring the cost of all the emissions that go into fuel. Regulations such as this one are critical to reaching net-zero.

 

Examining the Possibility of Sustainable Offsets

The manufacture and use of gasoline produce a lot of emissions per unit of energy. In fact, it results in emissions of around 100 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule of energy. What does that mean? The 100 grams include all the emissions from extracting the raw material, making and distributing the fuel, and combustion of the fuel. This is called life cycle emissions.

 

Petroleum comes from long-dead plankton buried for eons (or more correctly, epochs!), and its combustion takes carbon from the ground and puts it into the air and the oceans as CO2. The CO2 in the air acts as a greenhouse gas, absorbing and reemitting the warm infrared radiation that the earth emits to lose heat. The CO2 in the oceans acidifies said oceans, expanding the oceanic hypoxic and anoxic dead zones in our warming world, making it more and more difficult for creatures to form shells.

 

How much carbon does gasoline emit? It’s quite surprising that CO2, a molecule with two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom, is more than three times heavier than the carbon itself. A gallon of gasoline has 116 megajoules worth of energy, so when it is burned (at 100 grams of CO2e per megajoule from its life cycle), it emits around 26 pounds of CO2. Burning 86 gallons of fuel releases a metric ton of CO2 into the atmosphere.

 

To become sustainable, all the emissions from the life cycle of gasoline must be offset. Perhaps the only industrial-scale solution is carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Adding CO2 into underground storage costs about $75 per ton, so roughly 81cents per gallon of gasoline combusted, and a big 30% (or so) increase in fuel cost. If we are going to reach net-zero, that’s the minimum price increase we can expect on fuel. Similar math applies to farming, but increasing the cost of food will be even less popular than rising fuel costs. For net-zero, any industries that produce emissions must capture all their greenhouse gas emissions and pay for them to be sequestered.

 

We haven’t thought about paying to capture the CO2 that we burn when the water for our shower is heated; our home is warmed; our food cooked; and when we travel, or fly, or pour the foundation for our buildings. However, to achieve net-zero, all greenhouse gas emissions must be sequestered — and it is a cost that we are all going to have to bear.

 

Calculating the Cost of Net-Zero

What will that price be? What is the incremental cost for each extra ton of CO2? Capturing CO2 from concentrated industrial sources is relatively cheap, but there is little in the form of low-hanging fruit. All the “easy” CO2 will likely be captured by the end of this decade, but there isn’t nearly enough.

 

Capturing carbon at low (and gradually increasing) concentrations in the atmosphere is much more expensive. If that capture costs $500 a ton, then it’s a 200% increase in the cost of gasoline and not a 30% increase. Making all industrial activity sequester its emissions or buy offsets is a surefire way to get to net-zero — but the process is going to be slow and expensive.

 

We can’t begin too soon. CARB has inspired that start, with CO2 priced in the markets at $200 a ton. Let’s hope other jurisdictions follow suit and enact regulations to stop our headlong destruction of planet earth.

 

All concentrated (“easy”) sources will follow down the CCS route. Natural gas-burning power stations (or hydrogen burning, using small modular reactors to focus a CO2 stream before combustion) will follow. After that, there is the complicated problem of transportation fuels, and there is no way to capture tailpipe emissions from a car, truck, or plane.

 

An increasingly vital solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes is biofuels that emit recycled carbon, zero-emission electric power, and hydrogen. Sources of electricity (or EV) and hydrogen (or H2) can be concentrated, and the CO2 captured. Ethanol produces concentrated CO2 that can be sequestered, and it will be a solution where EV and H2 cannot be applied — particularly if the ethanol is converted to aviation fuel. Other technologies in the pipeline include conversion of municipal solid waste to fuel via gasification and the Fischer-Tropsch process as well as capturing methane emissions from farming. All these will lead us toward net-zero, but not without costs.

 

In the future, CO2 will be a commodity shifted to storage across the globe. The industry is nascent, the pipelines are being planned, and the storage geology is selected. For climate change to slow — for the steadily climbing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to decline — governments must choose to enact regulation, and we are going to pay to create an industry that few have yet comprehended.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 14, 2021

An increasingly vital solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes is biofuels that emit recycled carbon, zero-emission electric power, and hydrogen. 

Is there scale enough for us to move as aggressively as we are to EVs while keeping biofuels as a solution? I suppose personal vs. trucking vehicles, for example, can go the route that makes the most sense-- but in terms of personal travel it seems like many of these potential solutions would need the economies of scale of being the default energy source to work out. Or is that not the case and there's room for multiple pathways? 

Roxby Hartley's picture
Roxby Hartley on Dec 16, 2021

 

If we are to achieve net-zero by 2050 all emissions have to be cut using renewable sources and the balance of the GHG emissions shown to be sequestered. That's almost 4% of the global emissions per year, starting now. Is there political will? Possibly, the EU is leading the charge, but I think it will need the US to follow, and that does not seem likely in the next decade; giving money away is not the same as obligating polluters. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 14, 2021

Roxby, the cost of reaching net-zero carbon emissions will be much lower than many expect. Given "net-zero", "carbon offsets", "renewable energy credits", etc., are little more than excuses for failing to achieve zero carbon emissions, their principal cost will be in convincing a math-challenged public that net-zero is "pretty much the same as zero."

Like telling solicitors for worthwhile causes "I gave at the office", fake virtue has always come cheap.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Dec 14, 2021

Actually, 75% of emissions arise from electricity production, land transport and heating. These are easily addressed at approximately zero net cost by solar & wind pushing coal & gas out of electricity production, and using this decarbonized electricity to electrify land transport (via EVs) and heating (via heat pumps and electric furnaces). The required technology is off the shelf at low cost.

The last 25% of emissions (aviation, chemical industry, metals, shipping, land sector) needs plenty of work, but we can buy time by getting stuck into the first 75%.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 15, 2021

"... electricity production, land transport and heating. These are easily addressed at approximately zero net cost by solar & wind pushing coal & gas out of electricity production..."

Deep decarbonization using solar and wind is actually a lot harder than most advocates think.  Once they reach a grid penetration of around half (i.e. penetration roughly equal to their capacity factor), further increases in penetration will become increasingly expensive.  This sharp rise in marginal cost will occur because of increased need to add storage and additional transmission due to variability on the supply side and the demand side peakiness (which seasonal electric heating and evening BEV charging will worsen).

 

Every major grid study has shown that it is much more cost effective to add more "flexible generation" to the grid, rather than storage and transmission.  In the US, flexible generation means fossil gas; but in Germany, they have pioneered a new generation of future-proof, highly flexible (but still dirty) coal-fired power plants.

 

Hydrogen proponents claim that H2-fired peakers will someday balance the grid's renewables, but that is simply an economically hopeless proposition.  Hydrogen will struggle to reach cost parity with gasoline in most markets; it will simply never beat the cost of coal.

 

The result will likely be a grid that is barely clean enough for BEVs to provide a small benefit compared to hybrid gasoline cars, and heat pumps will barely improve over gas-fired home heat.

 

If we instead decarbonize the grid using nuclear power, the fossil fuel peakers will contribute only about a third of what they would in the renewables-dominated grid, thus electrification will be an effective clean-energy solution.  Night-time BEV charging is the obvious & effective solution in a nuclear-rich grid.  And we'll be able to use district heat networks to supply low-cost clean heat to our homes and industries.  All while making the smallest impact on the land and ecosystems.

 

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Dec 18, 2021

South Australia (1.5 GW average demand) is sitting at 75% solar/wind, heading for 100% in 2025. It has no coal, nuclear, hydro. Electricity in South Australia is the second cheapest among the 8 Australian states (after Tasmania's hydro/wind). It turns out that the cost of balancing high levels of solar/wind is quite low.

The main Australian grid is at 36% renewables, tracking towards 50% in 2025. Prices (and emissions) are falling.

Facts on the ground are worth far more than half-baked modelling that ignores off-river pumped hydro.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Dec 15, 2021

I feel net zero will save the planet and save money. We find much smarter ways of doing things that end up costing less.

   The example you gave of the cost of gas is backwards. When we drive electric it costs much less  about 50 cents vs a gallon of subsidized deadly gas from oil.  Quote= If that capture costs $500 a ton, then it’s a 200% increase in the cost of gasoline and not a 30% increase.

     Anothercexample is the long lasting LED light. It uses 10 times less energy. It does not produce 90% heat. Another is inductive heating for cooking. A heat pump for a house is much more efficient. And many more discoveries. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 20, 2021

Net-zero is a glib approach to energy that typifies the shallow, illogical, and narcissistic philosophy of the elite who have no trouble driving the poor and middle class into economic misery. Further, the alleged problem remains conjecture in the distant future.

In point of fact, we have no ability to accurately predict the future. A rational approach is to rely primarily on providing reasonably priced and reasonably clean energy, with technology and the marketplace invariably causing reductions in emissions, including CO2. 

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