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DoE’s Winberg: Tech will solve CO₂ emissions

US fossil energy secretary Steven Winberg has faith that technological developments will be enough to mitigate CO₂ emissions and provide hydrocarbons with a long-term future

“I am not a climate scientist” US assistant secretary for fossil energy Steven Winberg says as he sits down with Petroleum Economist during February. But while he would not be drawn on his personal views on climate change, he is a keen advocate of some of its solutions.

“I am a technology developer, that is what I have done my entire career,” he says. “Clearly, there is a move around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Different countries feel differently about it, have different schedules and want to reach different levels of ­reduction.”

What is his personal view on the need to control carbon emissions? “I am not a climate scientist, I am a technology developer. That is what I have done my entire career,” he says. “Clearly, there is a move around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Different countries feel differently about it, have different schedules and want to reach different levels of ­reduction.”

While the US is set to pull out of the Paris Agreement in November, Winberg is clearly interested in reducing emissions from fossil fuels. “I tell people consistently that this is all about technology. The speed with which we reduce emissions by state, by country will largely be dictated by how quickly we can develop the necessary technologies.”

Financial institutions are queueing up to shun certain fuels, especially coal, but Winberg considers this misguided. “It is too early in the game to write technologies or fuel sources out… [but] I see more and more of that. I think it is partly driven by angst, rather than understanding what it is going to take to get to whatever goals the country wants to get to.”

“We have enough economic might to continue developing technologies across the energy front”

The administration’s “all of the above” approach to energy sources includes his Office of Fossil Energy funding R&D programme Coal First to advance coal technologies. Things do change; the International Energy Association (IEA) was “not talking much about carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) five years ago, but it is now” he says.

“You can do the math and see what it is going to take. If you believe we can get rid of fossil fuels in the next decade you might feel differently. But for anyone that goes beyond handwaving and understands the enormity of the task… we are not going to get rid of fossil fuels in the next decade.”

Counting carbon

While he has unwavering faith in the development of CCUS, there remains a question over the volume of CO₂ it could ultimately mitigate. “I cannot give you a crisp answer on the timeline... as we do not yet have the complete policies necessary to commercialise CCUS technology,” he says.

The US Congress passed the 45Q carbon capture tax credit legislation in 2017. Winberg’s department has been helping the IRS to develop guidelines but they have not yet appeared. “It has taken quite a bit longer than I had hoped,” he says, putting the delay down to complexity. “Private companies are waiting for the IRS to provide the rules. There is a quite a bit of pent-up capital waiting to be spent on projects that will be commercially viable with 45Q.”

Reducing the cost of capturing carbon “is critical” and he believes is on a path to c.$30/t. “We can reach that within the next five years,” he says. “We learn by doing so, if we get these projects up and running, we will learn a lot more than if we just continue to do models and ­paper studies.”

“The speed with which we reduce emissions will largely be dictated by how quickly we can develop the necessary technologies”

Even a $30/t capture cost could make coal uncompetitive with, say, renewables. “[But] if you assign all of the costs associated with renewables and not just the marginal cost, coal and natural gas can compete,” he says. If an asset is nearly fully depreciated, with high concentrations of CO₂, pipelines are in place and emissions are used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), he says, “that is a business model that will work”.

He says it “never ceases to amaze” him that people focus on the marginal cost per KWh of solar or wind rather than the all-in cost. “We often ignore things such as intermittent power, resiliency and reliability. We ignore their value and therefore do not cost them.”

As the most vocal advocate of CCUS, the US has a key role in bringing about the global deployment of CCUS. It has partnerships with Europe, India and “for a number of years” with China.

“In Europe, there is a CCUS component of the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM),” he says. “There is a lot of activity on the international front, we are working to develop the technology, get the cost down, address the myriad of policy issues and [work on] information sharing. When we host CCUS events under the umbrella of the CEM… it is standing room only.”

He says the US is participating in the Technology Centre Mongstat (TCM) CCUS facility. “At least half a dozen US carbon capture technology developers have tested up in Norway.”
Europe is certainly becoming more involved in CCUS, though some experts think it only has the potential to mitigate 10pc of global emissions (see page 6). Winberg downplays the difference. “It is not an insignificant component of IEA’s strategy on how we get to a 2°C degree or 1.5°C scenario. It is a pretty significant piece of the equation.”

Europe is certainly becoming more involved in CCUS

He says the emissions debate has become too heavily focused on electricity generation. “The transportation sector—especially heavy-duty vehicles, aeroplanes, trains, ships—is going to become a much greater focus,” he says, and the solution may be hydrogen.

The cost of producing hydrogen through electrolysis is very likely to remain prohibitive. He does not believe green hydrogen—electrolysis using renewable energy—is viable. “Think about the amount of renewables we would have to put to bear.”

He says blue hydrogen—natural gas reforming and CCUS—is the far better option. “CCUS plays a role not just in power generation—but now in the transportation sector. They call that blue hydrogen. We can do it with coal.”

As an advocate of gasifying coal, biomass and waste plastics he certainly sticks by his mantra that we should not write off any technology or fuel source.

“Using CCUS, and with that biomass component, we are not ‘near zero’ or even zero—we are negative CO₂ emissions. People do not talk about gasifying coal, wood and plastics, solving the waste plastic problem. If we are at negative CO₂ emissions producing hydrogen, that makes it ‘neon green’ hydrogen—not green, not blue, and certainly not grey.”

Such technologies would, of course, go a very long way to reduce emissions. Whether they could be developed at commercial scale at reasonable cost in time to have a meaningful impact on the Paris Agreement goals is another matter.

“I come at the problem a little bit different”, he says. “We have enough economic might, the economic strength of developed countries, to continue developing technologies across the energy front. Otherwise, we are calling winners and losers. If you start to push losers off to the side, in 10 or 20 years, you may find that you made a big mistake and have to rush to develop that technology.”

He also says there is a moral dimension to the West banking the benefits from hydrocarbons and then preventing the developing world from doing the same. “There are people living in energy poverty that have fossil fuels under their feet. I do not think it is morally acceptable to tell them that they cannot utilise those fuels. We did. All developed countries did. What is morally acceptable is to develop the technology so that they can use those sources of energy and do so in a sustainable manner.” 

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