While we’ve spent much time discussing “green energy,” we’ve found little agreement over what the term even means. To some, any technology that emits zero greenhouse gasses qualifies as green. Others, however, are hesitant to include nuclear as green technology. Just take the hotly-debated Green New Deal as the latest example of the confusion. The resolution aims to mitigate climate change “by eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who were co-sponsors on the resolution, are at odds as to what that means. Ocasio-Cortez is opposed to the use of nuclear power, while Markey has stated he views the plan as being technology neutral.
This confusion extends beyond nuclear energy as well. Many may label biomass as green energy purely because it is renewable, but this ignores the fact that wood-based biomass produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal. On the flip side, nearly all proponents of green energy would balk at the idea of natural gas as a green energy source, even though increased energy production from natural gas has resulted in a decades-long trend of declining carbon emissions in the US.
Even with all of the disagreement surrounding green energy and climate solutions, there seems to be one consistent message: Fossil fuels have got to go.
But what if that isn’t necessarily true? What if, instead of focusing so hard on replacing fossil fuels, we sought to dramatically improve them? What if instead of relying on politicians to solve the climate puzzle, we rely on scientists and engineers who are already working diligently to reduce emissions from carbon-based fuels? What if instead of viewing carbon-based energy as the problem, we consider it as an unlikely path for a green future?
Fossil Fuels have already undergone major changes
Our reliance on fossil fuels hasn’t changed much in the past 150 years. Its impact on our environment and our health, however, has changed.
Oil and coal powered the American economy through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, providing heating and electricity for homes, energy for industrial applications, and fuel for transportation. As of 1908, coal and oil accounted for more than 80 percent of US energy production, with most of the rest being produced through burning biomass like wood.
This heavy use of coal and oil, while hugely beneficial as a power source for the growing US economy, created a number of poor health and environmental conditions. Some of the country’s most populous cities were also some of the dirtiest, and at times were so full of smog and soot that they blocked out the sun. As I noted in one of my previous essays, even as recently as the 1950s, Chicago was seriously affected by the smoke and soot from coal-fired power plants.
Fossil fuels still account for more than three-fourths of US energy production, but when was the last time you took a trip to Chicago or New York and had to rely on street lights to illuminate your way in the middle of the day? When was the last time you ran your hand along a stair rail only to find it covered in a layer of soot? Odds are that you haven’t. That’s because technology has gotten much better at eliminating pollution.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, since 1980, particulate matter and pollutants like nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide (both of which cause acid rain) have decreased 64 percent. This reduction has come as overall energy consumption has increased 25 percent, and is largely a result of advances in technology like cooling towers, sulfur scrubbers, and particulate collectors. At some of the newest coal plants, particulate pollution has been reduced nearly 100 percent over old coal plants, even without this new technology.
There is a good chance technology may soon be able to do the same thing for carbon dioxide.
Can we have a clean future with fossil fuels?
A recent report from the MIT Energy Initiative highlights the value of low-carbon dispatchable energy sources for a decarbonized future. Dispatchable energy sources include nuclear and fossil fuels, which can produce power on demand as opposed to intermittently like solar and wind. The authors explain:
While a variety of low- or zerocarbon technologies can be employed in various combinations, our analysis shows the potential contribution nuclear can make as a dispatchable low-carbon technology. Without that contribution, the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly. The least-cost portfolios include an important share for nuclear, the magnitude of which significantly grows as the cost of nuclear drops.
The report focuses on nuclear energy, but fossil fuels like coal and natural gas could fill a similar role if the resulting carbon emissions can be put in check.
Engineers are already hard at work on a number of carbon reduction technologies that can be incorporated with carbon-based energy production. The majority of these technologies are focused on the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Essentially what they are intended to do is capture carbon before it is emitted into the atmosphere and then either store or repurpose the captured CO2.
Metal-organic frameworks are being explored as one such option. These frameworks can pack a surface area the size of a football field into a molecule about the size of a grain of salt. The high internal surface area provides more sticking points for carbon dioxide as it passes through the framework.
Another option takes those frameworks and incorporates them into a hybrid membrane. One of the big barriers to effective carbon capture is the difficulty of separating it from the rest of a power plant’s exhaust. These hybrid membranes are intended to make it easier to separate CO2 from other by-products for cheaper sequestration.
Once that gas is captured, it has to be stored somewhere. Some of those options include storing it underground or injecting it into basalt rock where it transforms into an inert compound. That sequestered carbon dioxide, however, also has economic value. Researchers at George Washington University have developed a way to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes, which are used in electronics, high-end sporting goods, and even water purifiers. Carbon dioxide can also be added to concrete to improve its overall strength and water resistance.
An entirely separate approach to carbon-neutral fossil fuel is being explored by NET Power. They recently built an entirely new type of natural gas plant that uses a different type of generator than traditional combined cycle gas plants. This new plant is more efficient than current natural gas plants, and produces pure CO2 as a by-product, making it much easier and less costly to sequester.
These innovations should inspire optimism. After all, humanity has been avoiding doomsday predictions for centuries thanks to human innovation. Before deciding what our future will look like, we should ask ourselves how we think we’ll get there. For me, it’s one where innovative ideas rather than political solutions have created the best scenario possible for affordable, accessible clean energy.