According to him, over the next five years an enormous effort must be made to show that it is possible to do large-scale carbon capture and storage, and it is up to governments to pave the way

Princeton University Professor Eric Larson believes that one of the main bottlenecks to adopting large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies is political leadership. He was in Brazil, in October, to take part in the Energy Transition, Research & Innovation (ETRI) conference held by the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI) in the city of São Paulo. As the head of a project called Rapid Switch, Larson focuses studies on the bottlenecks, barriers, and the unintentional consequences that can arise in different sectors and regions, worldwide, with regard to energy transition. In this interview, he spoke exclusively with the RCGI.

RCGI – Why is it so important to measure the speed of energy transition?

Eric Larson – According to the climate change projections we have, there is a limited space in the atmosphere for assimilating the carbon we are emitting. At our current emission rates, we have only a few years before exhausting that space, if we do not reduce the rate of CO2 emissions. That space (“budget”) can be diminished, for example, by maintaining the increase in the Earth’s temperature below 2°C. If we want to avoid the increase in temperature going over 2°C, we have to work fast.

RCGI – And how quickly have we worked?

Eric Larson – Well, the emissions are still increasing. So, we are not yet heading in the right direction. They are growing more slowly, but they are growing.

RCGI – And how quickly must we move?

Eric Larson – As quickly as we can. We just don’t know what that speed is (he laughs). Now, we will make some mistakes along the way, and we have to be prepared. If we want to move quickly, we will need to test some different things, at the same time, and some of them will fail. And we don’t want any catastrophic failures. Of course, there will be fields where much effort will be put forth, and we will be unable to see the success that we imagined. But that is part of the challenge: make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

RCGI – Some countries will probably move faster, others more slowly. Do you think that we should have different approaches for different regions of the planet, in terms of reducing emissions?

Eric Larson – I believe that all of regions should cut their emissions as quickly as they can, within their own contexts. The U.S. is a very well developed and wealthy nation, which has the capability of spending 1% of its GDP – and that might really be the cost – to decarbonize the country.  That is: it is a nation that has the capacity to absorb that cost for decarbonizing itself. But a country like India, for example, which is still developing, has different priorities. In this case, the idea would be to keep decarbonization in mind while the country is developing. But the cost of decarbonization must be weighed against an economic constraint that might prevent the country from developing, while ensuring welfare for the population. So, I think that the countries that are able to decarbonize themselves and handle that cost must take the lead. Europe is doing very well, and the U.S. should be doing the same. Brazil is about half way: it has great capacity, but is not at the level needed to develop it, yet.

RCGI – Physicist Paulo Artaxo stated, in his presentation at the ETRI conference, that “climate change is changing”: it is occurring more quickly. Does this have an impact on your studies?

Eric Larson – I would say that there are two types of impact. One is the creation of a sense of urgency among those who are attempting to find solutions. And the other is an increase in the concentration of CO2, which causes changes in temperature and in global climate patterns. One affects the other, and addressing these problems becomes something even more urgent. For example: several of my colleagues are concerned about the heat waves that are increasingly frequent in India, which already has a very hot climate. And the quickest way to deal with this issue will probably be an increase in the use of air conditioning units. And that means that the demand for energy will increase, and the way that demand will be met is a very important subject.

RCGI – How do you work at Rapid Switch? Are their pilot projects? Do you know how much time these projects will take to “switch”? What approach are you taking?

Eric Larson – We are still attempting to draw up what will be the best approach to different problems, how to analyze them, and how to communicate the results of the analyses. Because it is a new area, people still do not think much about the rhythm of energy transition. We have two specific projects in the U.S., under the umbrella of Rapid Switch. One of them investigates how quickly we can decarbonize the so-called Power Generating Module (PGM) Grid, the electrical grid that is responsible for provide energy to part of the Northeast of the country (from Chicago to New York, the biggest single system in the world: 170 GW capacity). They are modelling the system, in order to understand what type of technological mix is needed so that the system will be entirely carbon free by around 2050, and how quickly it must be assimilated. Besides techno-economic analyses, we have psychologists and social scientists who are thinking about the bottlenecks that we will have to face in the attempt to change behaviors, as well as how to change the institutions that manage the mode of operation of this grid. They are using tools that come from psychology – survey methods – to know what the shock points will be and what to do about them. In the second project, we are developing plans regarding what would be physically done, and also the human resources needed, for completely decarbonizing the U.S. by 2050. The underlying idea is that the U.S. should be leading the world, because we have the capability, and the CCS resources are quite substantial. There is a lot of land, there is biomass, and we are one of the countries most able to lead the transition but, so far, no one has stood up and said: “Look, this is what you have to do during this decade, and then over the following five years, and the next five….”

RCGI – But how easy is it to establish this?

Eric Larson – To a large extent, it is a modelling exercise. We are creating scenarios that say: “You can achieve zero emissions in 2050 by building this many wind energy plants, this many nuclear plants, installing this many solar panels….” To that end, it is necessary to distribute the efforts throughout the regions of the country, establish what will have to be done in each region, and what would be the solution within this broader scope. We use cost and time estimates – of the time it will take to build and install these facilities and systems. For designing this format, there are many details to take into consideration, and that is where communication enters the picture. We want to insert this subject into political circles, because many Democratic candidates are talking about climate actions, now. If we can clearly and simply show what is needed, we can provide the basis for a more rational discussion about how national politics will deal with this issue.

RCGI – I imagine that since the U.S. is a country in which the States are very diverse and independent, from a legal point of view, you will have to develop different strategies for different States. How do you see that issue: as a challenge or as an opportunity?

Eric Larson – Different States are blessed with different resources. So, naturally, in places where there is a lot of sunlight we should encourage solar power; where there is a predominance of wind, wind power. One of the complications is to connect States that are rich in terms of resources with others that might not have that wealth. Building transmission lines will be a critical issue, because each State has to approve the construction of a line that passes through its territory. And many people do not want to see them in their territories. How do you deal with that? One idea that came up was to build underground transmission lines: people do not see them and that helps minimize the perception problem.

RCGI – Would you say that in the States where there is a big production of petroleum and natural gas, you would find it more difficult to set up these networks?

Eric Larson – That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, yes, because they produce petroleum and natural gas and that provides income for those States. But, on the other hand – take Texas, for example – it is the biggest producer of wind power in the U.S. And that happens because people make money from this energy source. So, if they are making money from energy, they are quite agnostic regarding the source. In the case of Texas, the sources were always petroleum and natural gas, but within a context of energy transition the entrepreneurs will want to find a way of capitalizing on it.

RCGI – Here at the ETRI Conference we discuss how to make money with CCS. Do you have any ideas with regard to this?

Eric Larson – Carbon storage must be given its proper value by society for the environmental benefits it provides. That means that government policies must be put in place. Because greenhouse gas emissions are an external element, and they are the consequence of using fossil fuels, it is policies are needed, in order to deal with it. And that requires political leadership that will encourage and take actions in the political realm.

RCGI – In your opinion, are the United States close to encouraging this type of political policy?

Eric Larson – It most certainly is not, at the Federal level, because Trump does not believe in climate change. I don’t believe he even knows the meaning of those words. But it’s interesting that, due to Trump’s opposition, many of the more progressive States have intensified their efforts to reduce emissions; for example: California, New York, and New Jersey (where I was born). They are increasing their decarbonization efforts. At any rate, each State must somehow do this. Even if there were a Federal law establishing a minimum common denominator, the States could choose to do more than required at the Federal level, if they want to. It is hard to get some States to become a part of this joint effort, such as Kentucky and West Virginia, which are coalmining States; they will probably resist the more aggressive policies, thus the could follow the minimum established by Federal policies (if they exist), and adapt them to their State policies. The fact is that the States are already doing this, without the existence of any Federal policy.

RCGI – Professor Owen Anderson, lawyer and instructor at the University of Texas, told us that in the case of CCS in the U.S., you could have problems with porous space (space existing in porous rocks in which carbon and other gases can be stored). That is, because in the U.S., minerals and fossils, like petroleum and natural gas, belong to the landowner – in contrast to Brazil, where the petroleum and natural gas belong to the Federal government. How can one work with CCS in your country, under this configuration?

Eric Larson – CCS is not yet legally established in the U.S., and porous space is a different kind of animal, compared to ores. In order to be consistent with mineral rights, I imagine that if it were possible to monetize the porous spaces, it must be possible to obtain income from that monetization.

RCGI – Do you mean to say renting, for example?

Eric Larson – Yes, for example. But, once again: this requires policies. Because at this time there is no positive monetary value for porous space. So, no one will pay the owner of a property to use the underground porous space.

RCGI – So you think that this depends on Federal policies?

Eric Larson – I think that this issue will end up being settled in the courts.

RCGI – In the Supreme Court?

Eric Larson – It might or might not go to the Supreme Court, but the arguments will probably have to deal with the issue of porous spaces being considered, or not, to belong to the land owner.

RCGI – We have talked a lot about CCS. I would like to know, in your opinion, what is the role of CCS in energy transition and can it contribute to accelerating the transition?

Eric Larson – In the short term, I would say that for the next five years, big efforts must be made to show that we can do this on a large scale. There are perhaps a half dozen projects in which one million tons of CO2 are being injected per year. That seems like a lot, but they are not such large projects. We need to have many of these projects. The other important thing to do is to take an inventory of the areas that have good potential for storing CO2. We really don’t know which are the best places to store CO2. We have some ideas, we do tests, but we need to have a better understanding of this. The American Geological Service seeks out petroleum and natural gas reservoirs in a preliminary step: they do some drilling, enough to be sure that there is petroleum and natural gas in those reservoirs, and then they lease the lands to the petroleum and natural gas companies, which must do the rest of the development. In the case of CO2 storage, this preliminary prospecting is not enough to know, with the same degree of confidence, how much CO2 is would be possible to store in each reservoir. Therefore, there is more risk for the company that will be carrying out the activity. I believe that this means that the government must make greater efforts to carry out this exploration, to the point that the company that is responsible for CCS can have as little more security to take the risk of developing the activity of the reservoir involved. This exploration takes a long time and is expensive. It should be done by governments, in order to prepare the way for large-scale implementation.

RCGI – Do you believe that CCS done in the ocean has more chances of being accepted by society than what would be done on land (due to what we would call the “not in my backyard” phenomenon)?

Eric Larson – Well, that is true to some degree. But the ecological concerns have become more serious, with many uncertainties regarding the impact on local ecosystems, in the case of placing a large quantity of CO2 in the ocean. That has practically been taken off the table. Now, underground offshore, below the ocean floor, is highly promising.

RCGI – During one of the ETRI debates, the subject of reducing petroleum prices arose, which pointed out by some as a possible driver of renewable sources. However, it is feared that this would not stimulate the development of renewable sources, because the lower petroleum prices would end up encouraging a return to fossil sources, something like a not very virtuous spiral. What can be done to avoid that?

Eric Larson – This is where carbon pricing polices come into play. If a price for carbon were set sufficiently high, and makes the price of petroleum not seem so low, but rather high, then we have found a path. Because the important thing is how the price appears to consumers: that is what impacts the way a consumer uses this fuel. If there is no carbon policy and the demand for petroleum drops, the price will also drop, and it will seem cheap. But if there is a carbon policy, even if the demand drops and the prices of petroleum drop, but the rates for setting the price of carbon are high, then the price of petroleum will also rise.

RCGI – And what must be taken into account in establishing a good price for carbon?

Eric Larson – I do not think we should make efforts to establish a global price for carbon; I don’t think that will happen. I believe that each individual region should develop its own policies, whether they are policies for carbon pricing or regulations that limit how much can be emitted, for example, per sector. Everyone talks about the price of carbon as being the most efficient way to reduce emissions but, as we look around the world, we see that we never have done things in the most efficient manner.

RCGI – Europe established a carbon market several years ago and we thought it would pan out. But it didn’t. In your opinion, why did that happen?

Eric Larson – The idea at that time was to establish a limit on emissions and, if the emissions surpassed the established limit, you would have to buy carbon credits. And then, as time went by, that limit would go down, and the credits would be more expensive. But setting that limit was not very aggressive. If the limits had been more aggressive, that would have raised the prices much higher. But, then, resistance would have been raised by society regarding the high prices. It’s the old story of the egg and the hen.