Guessing between the lines: how will Canada-U.S. energy and environment policy take shape?

After weeks of speculation about how Canada and the U.S. will respond to the converging pressures on the economy and environment, last week’s Ottawa meeting between the president and prime minister produced a few hints. Stephen Harper and Barack Obama emerged from their meeting saying they would begin a “clean energy dialog.” Though they dodged questions on whether a continental carbon market is in the cards, they did give some specifics on what subjects their dialog might cover.

“Clean energy” appears to be more about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—i.e., capturing the emissions from coal-fired power plants—than anything else. On this, the PM’s website says Canada and the U.S. will “coordinate research and demonstration” in this area. The two governments signal their intention to invest in “grid efficiencies”—i.e., grid infrastructure that can accommodate variable and intermittent wind and solar generators.

While transmission infrastructure all over the continent is badly in need of upgrades, “smart grids” on their own are only tangentially related to large-scale electricity related emission reductions. CCS deals with the bulk of emissions, and will occupy most of the focus.

I have said before that the sequestration part of CCS is a fantasy. Power plants in the U.S. crank out over two billion tonnes of CO2 every year; in Canada, roughly 140 million. We’re not pumping even a fraction of that underground.

We can, however, turn that CO2 into synthetic hydrocarbon fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. This is called carbon capture and recycle, or CCR (see article). This will of course depend on developing an inexpensive source of hydrogen. I mentioned a breakthrough in exactly that back in October: a research team at an American university has successfully produced hydrogen from water using light energy.

The prime minister’s web statement indicates he expects that a Canada-U.S. partnership will “help accelerate private sector investment in commercial-scale, near-zero-carbon coal facilities.” No details on how such a partnership would work, but hopefully the partnership would accelerate investment in the above-mentioned hydrogen breakthrough. That’s the only way the CC in CCS will pay off.

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[…] as I mentioned in “Guessing between the lines” and other posts, the only airy-fairy part of CCS is the S: sequestration. CCS will soon give way […]