Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is This Cost Just Early Development?

I think Jeffrey Simpson makes some interesting points about the costs and estimated effectiveness of recently announced Carbon Capture/Sequestration projects.

We get, at best, a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions of 2.1 million tonnes. “At best” because the announcements were tempered with hedging words such as “could” achieve and “up to one million tonnes.” Therefore, something less than 2.1 million tonnes might actually be captured.

Let's be generous and assume the two projects costing $1.6-billion do in fact bury 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the most-prevalent gas contributing to global warming. Such a reduction would mean a per-tonne carbon-reduction cost of about $761 – staggeringly, wildly, mind-blowingly higher than any other conceivable measure designed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Want a contrast? Alberta has a piddling carbon tax on emissions over a certain level that companies can avoid by paying $15 a tonne into an technology fund.

Now, superficially, Simpson's argument makes a lot of rational sense - these are seemingly very expensive projects with minimal impact.

The question that I find myself musing about is whether this is simply the cost of developing a new technology. In the WWII era when the first computers were being developed for code cracking and other similar tasks, the computers did very limited work and cost huge amounts (especially on a per unit of work basis). Today I can walk into the local computer store and walk out with more computer power for a bit of pocket change than those hugely expensive specialty devices some six decades earlier.

So ... are we just seeing the baby steps of a new technology that will overwhelm us with its capability in a few decades, or is the technology a dead end - one which we are already so close to the practical limits of simply be some well known laws of physics and chemistry?

It's an interesting question to mull over - one which I certainly do not have the answers for. As taxpayers, we are ultimately the investors paying the freight for these projects. We should be paying close attention to the progress of these efforts, and insistent that there be measurable results - not just "smoke and mirrors".

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