One of the major objections to H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, that I've heard from my friends in the electric power industry is that ACESA is banking on technology that we just don't have yet. We can't meet our emission reduction goals just by shutting down 83% of carbon emitters (well, we could, but we'd have economic chaos). We have to develop ways to capture the carbon we do (must?) emit, and that carbon sequestration technology isn't ready for prime time. Greenpeace says Carbon Capture and Storage—CCS—will take at least 20 years to deploy. (Greenpeace also says CCS is a "scam.... the ultimate coal industry pipe dream." And you thought Repower SD was a bunch of radicals?)
Can we responsibly pass a law that depends on technology we haven't invented yet?
Matt McGovern from Repower South Dakota first points to the full half of the glass. We have wind and solar technology that can take us toward a good chunk of ACESA's goals. We also have lots of energy-efficiency technology that can reduce the amount of energy we use to do the same amount of business and pleasure.
Carbon Capture and Storage is another matter. McGovern says we don't have industrial-scale CCS technology. Utilities and the feds are trying to build the FutureGen "clean coal" power plant in Mattoon, Illinois, to test out CCS tech (Energy Secretary Steven Chu likes the project, but it has run into delays and problems with partners backing out, much like our own Big Stone II). Black Hills Corp and partners have just submitted a DoE application and are looking for investors to build a 100-megawatt coal plant with CCS tech in Wyoming by 2015. But CCS isn't a reality yet.
Part of the reason we don't have more CCS in chute is our lack of a solid carbon policy like ACESA. Potential builders face a chicken-and-egg problem:
A top executive of one of those [energy] companies says that the industry could have commercially viable full-scale greenhouse gas pollution controls ready for power plants by 2015 — but only if governments move quickly to regulate greenhouse gas pollution.
It's kind of a catch-22. Many members of Congress say they're not willing to set limits on greenhouse gases yet because there isn't technology available to strip carbon from coal-fired power plants [Elizabeth Shogren, "Lack of Carbon Policy Prevents Emissions Innovation," NPR.org, 2009.09.27].
We can argue that we need the tech before we pass the policies that depend on it. But the inventors and investors can argue that they can't build a business model on the tech until the government has defined the playing field with actual policies. Passing ACESA will create a market with clear rules for carbon capture. As ELPC's Matt McLarty says, "Business abhors a vacuum."
RSD's Rick Hauffe compares our efforts to build sustainable energy to the 1960s space race. When John F. Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of that decade, we didn't have lunar landers in the hangar, tested and ready to launch. (And no, the spaceships we captured at Area 51 don't count.) Our challenge to ourselves and the Soviets was based on the confidence that, given a definite goal and deadline, we could invent the tech we needed to do the job. And we did. That's just good old American can-do spirit. The old saw makes a great deal of sense here: if we can put a man on the moon, we can capture CO2.
Hauffe says there is one big difference between the moonshots and big carbon emission goals. In the 1960s, we were competing against the Soviets. If the Apollo missions had failed, we'd have suffered a public relations defeat, but we still would have had capitalism, freedom, and rock and roll to win the Cold War. On climate change, says Hauffe, our competition isn't the Russkies; it's doomsday. Think of the whole planet as the Apollo 13 capsule: failure is not an option. If we blow climate change, nothing else matters. (See a similar argument from Joseph Romm from June 2009 at Salon.com.)
A market-based system promoting competition is the best way to elicit invention. Issue the challenge, set the goals, and enterprising inventors will scramble to win the prize. The American Clean Energy and Security Act is a government action, but its real power lies in stimulating the private innovation and invention that will pull our fat out of the fire. ACESA is gutsy and forward-looking policy that we should pass.