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February 04, 2016

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"Synthetic natural gas" is annoying, but etymologically understandable. Originally there was "town gas", or "coal gas" which was made by destructive distillation (or pyrolysis) of coal - which meant gas with carbon monoxide in (which is why you could kill yourself by sticking your head in the oven).

Natural gas replaced coal gas, and was derived from oil wells. Normally it's methane (with some small quantity of other gaseous hydrocarbons), with a chemical marker added so you can smell it.

Hence synthetic natural gas from coal is pure hydrocarbons, usually made by removing the carbon monoxide from the coal gas, though you can also pyrolize powedered coal in a pure hydrogen atmosphere.

Is there a systematic reason for these foul-ups, or is it lack of experience, which might be curable?

That's a good question, David. In general, I suspect that it's a general systematic problem with large projects; the nuclear power industry provides an example. http://noelmaurer.typepad.com/aab/2011/03/small-nuclear-power-plants.html

Other coal CCS projects are better. The Boundary Dam Project in Canada hasn't seen the construction fiascos of Kemper, although the project isa money-loser even at its budgeted C$1.2 billion. (It's a retrofit, not a greenfield plant; the cost topped C$1.5 bn all-in.) Petra Nova in Texas seems to be a success, but information is hard to come by.

In other words, we don't yet know.

Captured CO2 can be used as a feedstock to create natural gas. That's a very energy-intensive process, but it's being floated as one way to solve the storage problem -- just use excess wind and solar.

It can't be called a solved problem yet, alas, or anything close to it.


Doug M.

Noel, actually used this post as inspiration to discuss with some colleagues what, if anything, needs to be done if we believe we need to seriously ramp up clean energy. Curious about your thoughts.

Is the problem innovation? Well Congress just passed a massivve R&D tax credit giveaway that hopefully will impact the economy in the long term if you buy the argument companies have been holding back because of uncertainty. But DOE does a good job with funding innovation through ARPA-E and EERE and such. But Republicans don't want to believe more spending is a solution.

Is the problem the incentives to switch when fossil fuels are hitting rock bottom? Maybe, but there's the regulatory CPP hanging over their heads long term, and we just extended the PTC/ITC to act as a bridge. Maybe there is uncertainty there, would be nice to know a President Rubio won't screw with that, but again the problems are political not economical.

Is it deployment? Based on cost overruns with CCS and nuclear maybe? But how do you fix that? More generous loan guarantees? The very problem with these big problems mean the loan guarantees will score badly because no one has figured out deployment. My friend who works extensively in P3s in infrastructure is not familiar with the energy world and why they are having these problems, while other infrastructure is finding ways to address project delivery costs through P3s.

What else is there? I'm biased from my work on transportation but I think more could be done to address transportation emissions that come from poor land use policies. But that's going up against the suburban growth machine and fundamentally polarizing. I could see an argument against network effects in deployment of electric cars and how that needs government assistancce. Your thoughts?

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