Jim Hurt: Can Gov. Scott and VT Climate Council go around the court’s crazy EPA ruling?

This commentary is by Jim Hurt, a resident of Woodstock.

First, here is good news that will help mitigate the Supreme Court’s backward ruling on climate and power plants. 

Recent advances in chemistry, agriculture and renewable energy technology now make it profitable to renovate and transform all central power plants into negative-emission power and storage stations. Instead of closing down coal, gas or wood plants — due to age, CO2 gas and competition from solar and wind — we can turn them into utility-scale, fully renewable power and storage stations that make clean watts, green hydrogen and synthetic fuels. 

More, they can profit by removing CO2 from the sky. Solar and wind farms are zero-emission only if you don’t count the emissions to build them. They do not actively, directly or intrinsically remove CO2 from air. 

Carbon dioxide removal can and must be profitable or will not happen fast enough to actually help save us. EPA now won’t be able to force utilities to clean up plants. Utilities now can do it themselves for profit with EPA guidance and Department of Energy support.  

Now, here are a few hard questions for historical context on the present unpleasantnesses. Why fight the good fight for democracy in Ukraine but let it slip away in our own country through criminal neglect? The enemy is identical. Putin and Trump are old friends and twin fiends. What is Attorney General Garland doing or not doing that he should be doing? 

Then, how do we save our climate without free and fair elections? Truth is if we don’t fight like hell, we won’t have a democracy, a climate or a country anymore, as Trump did not admit exactly. Anyway, he’s covered in the highest court of the land beyond all reasonable doubt by the magic cloak of implausible deniability, or so we are told. Worse, he’s stealing the next election by claiming the last, i.e. Big Lie. How do we save earth’s climate if MAGA fanatics sweep the next two elections?  

Speaking of MAGA, one way to make America great again for the first time is to create green jobs for all kinds of Americans, including new immigrants. We mustn’t let these good, desperate people get away without exploiting them as future citizens, taxpayers, consumers, workers and community developers. 

Immigrants are still the life’s blood of our formerly great nation. They too deserve a Green New Deal to retrain them as farmers, foresters and firefighters out West and wild East. Irrigating deserts will cool climate substantially and increase yields of food and biofuel crops, such as hemp, that replace fossil and forest fuels directly. Carbon forests need protection and expansion. 

Besides, except for Indigenous Americans, we are a nation of immigrants and their children, after all. America can be great again like never before if we unite with native people and new immigrants and all kinds of Americans — white folk too — in support of free and fair elections. Climate justice and civil rights will only come hand in hand. These truths will blow away the dumb rage of Trumpism and Putinisim at the ballot box, even as Garland fiddles.

Renovate wood plants, capture CO2

Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act is all about reducing CO2 emissions but avoids active removal of CO2 from air, perhaps because it is considered too costly, addressed below. Complicating matters, Vermont’s Climate Action Plan was upended after the implosion of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, set up to promote electric cars.  

The council then targeted the heating market to reduce CO2 emissions by 500,000 tons by 2025 or so. Scott quickly vetoed that idea, demonstrating fast action on the climate front, but not the right action. More would have been more like it. 

Gov. Scott may still change his mind and support the heating provision or his own version. More, he can propose that renovating Vermont’s wood plants can cover twice that gap, cited above, and help meet new demand for electric cars and heat pumps. Besides, Vermont is way too dependent on Hydro-Quebec, which is not the clean green power it was thought to be. Rotting vegetation emits methane and CO2 into air and methyl mercury into adjacent waterways. Cree fishing villages have suffered terribly over decades. 

Ideally, CO2 reduction should come hand in hand with active removal of CO2 from the sky simultaneously and profitably. Recent reports from the IPCC and COP26 say we must begin to remove carbon from the atmosphere by 2030! In other words, reduction without removal is like digging a hole in the sky and filling it again. Both reports bring dire warnings but no new solutions, not already considered and not fast enough. We need more. 

This essay covers main points from a CO2 Reuse research summary written for the Renewable Nations Institute, posted in “Comments” on the council website Nov. 23, 2021. The case is made for the profitable renovation of central plants, like Vermont’s wood plants and Vermont Yankee, to make them “carbon neutral” first and then “carbon negative” in two stages well within 10 years. 

Important developments are reviewed by Robert Service at Science, AAAS on CO2 Capture, Tim Wogan at Chem World on producing H2 via water/gas shift method and Ellen Brown, author, “The Cheapest Way to Save the Planet Grows Like a Weed,” Web of Debt Blog, 7/30/19, on the advantages of hemp biofuels. Over sixty articles, lab reports and links are cited on a) how best to capture CO2 and b) how best to catalyze CO2 into synthetic fuels and feedstocks. An addendum of recent materials is available. 

New catalysts convert CO2 and H2O into hydrogen — H2 — in two steps or into methane, methanol, ethanol or gasoline in one step. Or H2 can be had in one step via advanced electrolysis to make ammonia (NH3). If said fuels and feedstocks are used responsibly to control carbon, then negative emissions can be actuated, monitored and certified at utility scale.

The overall plan is to replace fossil and forest fuels in power plants with a mix of efficiency, wind, solar, storage, synthetic fuels made from CO2 and biofuels made from industrial hemp and other, sustainably cultivated biomass. The ever useful switching yard is key to integrating new inputs, such as local solar farms, storage and biofuel watts. 

On the transportation front, imagine a hybrid vehicle that runs on farm ethanol, biogasoline or biodiesel and reuses CO2 emission to make compatible synthetic fuel for that same vehicle. That would make it a negative emission car. Porsche too is developing eFuels from CO2 and H2 to make synthetic gasoline that can be returned to the gas tank. 

Gov. Scott and the Climate Council should investigate these matters with an eye for transforming Vermont Yankee and both wood plants into negative-emission power and storage stations. Though small, 30 and 50 megawatts, these two wood plants emit 600,000 tons of CO2 a year. Or they can be commercially retrofitted to reduce direct emission by 90% within three years. 

The second stage

In the second stage, farm fuel can gradually replace fossil or forest fuels, thereby removing most of that same amount from the sky and making a total difference of over one million tons of CO2 — half from reduction, half from removal. 

Besides, Vermont dairy farmers and most farmers need new cash crops. Hemp can easily replace corn to make ethanol, a gasoline additive, especially now with high fuel prices because of the war in Ukraine. Corn requires too much fertilizer and water and is hard on soil. Hemp restores soil and, for biomass, needs little water or any fertilizer. 

We can burn hemp-biofuels and reuse their CO2 emissions with water to make hydrogen and synthetic fuels. We can nurture and expand carbon forests instead of clear-cutting vast swaths of forested land. 

Theoretically, forests and tree farms can be responsibly harvested to maintain a “net-negative” carbon balance if only the forest industry and landowners put their own carbon houses in order. That’s not happening now. Vast forests down south are being shaved bare, leaving behind barren lands. Yet, with proper monitoring and control, more carbon can be stored in trees than is released by harvesting. 

Clear-cutting entire forests should be prohibited. The key is to not take too much too soon. Foresters and tree farmers should be rewarded for storing more carbon than released by logging. A new EU ruling on wood emissions requires accurate carbon accounting for wood fuel.   

The missing ingredient that Gov. Scott and Vermont utilities can bring to the table is a profitable plan for CO2 removal. CO2 can be reused to make synthetic fuels and other products, such as plastic, concrete, fertilizer, graphite, graphene and carbon fiber. Besides, central power and storage that is clean and green can only support the rapid growth of distributed renewables that, in turn, support the proliferation of electric vehicles and heat pumps. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is allocating $3.5 billion for Direct Air Capture projects, even though DAC is still too expensive in its present form. Some Energy Department money can and should go to projects that cultivate appropriate biofuels made from hemp to pull CO2 from the sky and then capture their CO2 at the point of emission to make synthetic fuels and feedstocks, outlined above. 

Vermont and Vermont utilities should seek Department of Energy support to renovate Vermont’s wood plants both to reduce CO2 emissions at the point of emission and remove CO2 from the atmosphere at the same time. 

Finally, here is good news on the cost of CO2 capture, which has long been an obstacle to carbon removal and reuse. 

First, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in a study reviewed by Robert Service in Science, 03/24/21, reports that its new EEMP solvent absorbs CO2 from flue gas and releases it as pure CO2 for $47.10 per ton — a new benchmark. More, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 02/25/21, reporting on the work of Professor Kumar Agrawal, et al, claims that a graphene filter can lower the cost of carbon capture to $30 per ton. More still, Tokyo Metropolitan University reported 05/28/22 that a “New carbon sorbent is 99% efficient, lightning fast and easily recyclable.” 

These advances bring us well within reach of cost-effective CO2 capture and also present a serious challenge to old stalwarts like Global Thermostat, Carbon Engineering and Climeworks. 

Let’s face it. Net-zero emission by 2050 or even 2040 is too slow. We need to begin net-negative carbon emission by 2030 or 2035 at the very latest. Therefore, the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, COP26 and 27, are in trouble. 

The Vermont Climate Council needs help. Gov. Scott and Vermont utilities can now come to the rescue with a profitable plan to renovate Vermont’s power plants to reduce CO2 emissions, remove CO2 from the sky and set the right example for the nation, world and Joe Biden too.   

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