A game-changer in the battle against climate change

Mark Perry

Could opposition to the worldwide use of fossil fuels in electricity production be overcome by increasing investment in a new technology that might be a game-changer in the battle against climate change?

Exxon Mobil believes that’s possible, for the innovative technology uses fuel cells to convert a power plant’s carbon dioxide emissions into a concentrate for underground storage, while the fuel cell generates more electricity. This power would more than make up for the cost of capturing the carbon and sequestering it underground.

The technology — known as carbon capture and storage — is a potential solution to reducing carbon emissions from power plants and industrial facilities that burn natural gas, oil and coal. One result may be tens of thousands of lives saved each year from the destructive effects of extreme weather and mosquito-borne disease.

Exxon Mobil is partnering with FuelCell Energy of Danbury, Conn., to advance the technology. The goal is to develop and demonstrate the process so that it could be incorporated in power plants around the world.

Here’s why carbon capture and storage is so important: Fossil fuels account for 81 percent of global energy supply and, based on the latest projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, they will still provide 78 percent of the world’s energy in 2040.

So the first step toward sensible climate action is to face reality. Despite the growth of solar and wind power, for the foreseeable future they cannot supply the bulk of the world’s energy. Just as important, the use of coal, the most carbon-rich fuel, will continue to grow, though at a much slower rate.

Coal remains one of the world’s most critical fuels for good reason. It is important globally because of its low cost and abundance. Therefore, we need to be able to offer technologies that the largest coal-using countries like China and India can use to reduce their carbon emissions.

What the new process brings to this challenge is an advanced type of fuel cells — devices that generate electricity through chemical reactions. The fuel cells use a high-temperature molten carbonate salt mixture. Carbon dioxide flows into the fuel cell and emerges in a concentrated form that is ready for storage. In tests, the fuel cells effectively isolate and compress the carbon dioxide while producing enough power to more than compensate for the energy cost of capturing the carbon.

So it turns out there might be a reasonable technological solution to the dire predictions of coal-induced global warming. And it hasn’t required heavy-handed regulation of the sort the EPA is known for. Or imposing a carbon tax on the use of fossil fuels.

We are moving toward a solution because of a partnership in which a major oil and gas company is teaming up with a fuel cell company to develop a technology that could significantly reduce carbon emissions. Small changes can indeed make a big difference; but they’re usually not the things you were watching, or the difference you expected.

Mark Perry is a professor of finance and business economics at the School of Management, University of Michigan-Flint.