April 29, 2008

Profs Consider Reality Of Climate Commitment

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When President David Skorton signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment last year, he joined administrators from other institutions in an effort to enact climate change action and strive to make Cornell a carbon neutral institution. As a result, some members of the Cornell Community were charged with the responsibility of overseeing the agreement.
President’s Climate Commitment Implementation Committee and the Ad Hoc Committee on Climate Neutrality currently act as liaisons between researchers on sustainable energy and Skorton. Members of these committees include students, professors and University staff.
Kyu Whang, vice president of facilities services and co-chair of the PCCIC, described the committee’s plan of action, which includes minimizing the University’s carbon footprint, engaging expert consultants by the end of June 2008, considering the different proposals put forth by researchers in the field of sustainable energy and compiling a Climate Action Plan to be presented to Skorton by Sept. 2009.
Prof. Andrew Hunter, chemical engineering, teaches CHEM E 665: Energy Engineering, which focuses on the design, construction and operation of new and existing energy systems. Students test the feasibility of carbon capture and sequestration using state-of-the-art technology, as it applies to the Combined Heat and Power expansion project at the Cornell power plant.
A CHP system is able to re-channel the heat given off as a by-product of the power plant to produce steam, which will in turn be used to heat buildings.
Trevor Wirsig grad, a student in CHEM E 665, said steam generated from the CHP system “won’t be enough to satisfy Cornell’s demand, so in addition to the natural gas burned in the CHP process, there will be coal burned as well.”
According to Hunter, the best place to bury captured carbon is in old gas fields, which have proven to be leak-free. However, parts of the plants such as compressors and pipelines can cost up to $1 million per compressor and $500,000 per square-mile of pipeline. This would cost the University upwards of $20 million, according to Hunter, on top of the cost to rent the gas fields.
[img_assist|nid=30308|title=Where there’s smoke …|desc=The Central Heat Plant is not yet carbon neutral, but the University hopes to make it so as part of its commitment to carbon neutrality.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Without gas fields, Hunter said, locations around the Cornell campus cannot contain the carbon dioxide. He speculated that leakage might occur, which could lead to a massive eruption at Cornell and the surrounding community. He referred to a similar disaster that occurred in Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa, which resulted in death.
“I’m not against [capture and sequestration]; the question is, where you will put [the sequestered carbon],” he emphasized.
Wirsig highlighted that in order to make the Cornell power plant carbon neutral, it would have to capture around 1.5 million pounds of emitted carbon dioxide per day. Unfortunately, capturing and storing 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted from the plant will come at a huge cost — a price tag ranging from “the conservative $50 million to the more likely $80 million,” which is two to three times the original cost of the CHP expansion project.
Additionally, nitrogen abundant in the atmosphere will occupy a large volume of the carbon dioxide reservoir, thereby decreasing the carbon dioxide’s concentration and lowering its rate of conversion from gaseous to liquid state. Unfortunately, according to Wirsig, the only remedy would be to obtain a larger plant, which could result in higher capital costs.
Alternative options, including planting 7.2 square miles of trees per year are “clearly impractical,” Wirsig underscored.
Acknowledging the limited feasibility of the system, Prof. Tim Fahey, natural resources, co-chair of PCCIC, clarified that though capture and sequestration may not be viable for Cornell with today’s technologies, it could be a likely option if the University were to replace the coal-fired boilers. However, he stated that although the University’s “carbon footprint is sure to go down substantially in the next several years; it is highly unlikely that we will reach climate neutrality anytime soon.”
Whang stated, however, it is still “premature for the PCCIC to weigh in on” the viability of carbon capture and sequestration, “given where we are in the overall process.”