Greenhouse Gas Emitters Mapped, and Carbon Captured?

by Bill Chameides | January 12th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

Map from EPA’s new interactive site showing the number of facilities in each state that reported greenhouse gas emissions for 2010. The new tool allows users to see the country’s biggest emitters in just a few clicks.

A double-header for Thursday: New online tool shows big greenhouse gas emitters, and a potential new way to capture carbon.

When it comes to climate change, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major player — responsible for about 77 percent of the global warming from human emissions each year. And about three-quarters of those CO2 emissions from human activities come from burning fossil fuels — to provide electricity, to power our motor vehicles, etc. Long-term, almost all climate scientists agree, we’re going to have to curtail those emissions in a major way.

A Win for Transparency: EPA’s New Greenhouse Emissions Tracker Lets You See Who’s Polluting

If, as they say, knowledge is power, then for a society to start figuring out how to address emissions, we gotta know where they’re coming from. But before this week, the average Joe did not have easy access to such information. Yesterday, that changed with the debut of an interactive website from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that lets people view the data on and locations of the nation’s major emitters of greenhouse gases.

According to EPA, this kind of “information can be used to help businesses track emissions and identify cost- and fuel-saving efficiencies, identify industry leaders, inform policy at the state and local levels, and provide important information to the finance and investment communities.” Cool. Always good to see how the competition’s doing, and who’s doing better at reining in their greenhouse gas emissions, right? And even beyond business, I’d have to say that the new interactive tool is pretty neat for the average Joe — and I include myself in that category.

I took the site for a test drive this morning, and found it intuitive and easy to use — a major improvement over the government’s often awkward, clunky information tools designed to arm the public with knowledge.

In just a few clicks, I easily found that in North Carolina, just three facilities, all of them power plants, emit more than half of the state’s total emissions, with each of the plants emitting more than 10 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent each year. North Carolina’s largest emitter is just down the road in Semora.

Finding out North Carolina’s top greenhouse gas emitters is easy using EPA’s new interactive site. It puts information in the hands of people, who might just then be able to do something with it. (Click on map to jump to EPA’s GHG Data site.)

Overall, the tool is pretty comprehensive, currently tracking more than 6,700 facilities that account for some 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; eventually, it will cover some 13,000 sources that account for between 85 and 90 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions.

I recommend checking out the website for yourself and taking it for a spin to see what’s up in your hood. It doesn’t require nearly the amount of hand-eye coordination as an Xbox or Wii, and there’s something to that whole knowledge is power thang. Want to know the biggest emitters near you? Now you can.

New Research: A Potential Emissions Remover Brought to Light

OK, so say you’re not an average Joe. Say you’re a policy maker and now that you know where the emissions are coming from, what do you do about them?

The most obvious answer is to stop whatever is producing the emissions — in other words, get off fossil fuels for energy. Easier said than done, right?

Another approach: Burn fossil fuels but remove the CO2 after it’s been produced. The technology that’s most often invoked in this regard is so-called Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, in which the CO2 in the gaseous effluent (for example from a coal-fired power plant) is stripped out, isolated, and then stored or sequestered so that it never gets into the atmosphere.

There are a number of challenges to make this process effective — not the least of which is figuring out how and where to safely and economically store the CO2 so that we can be sure it never leaks out. (See related new study on one type of possible storage.)

Another major hurdle is removing the CO2 from the effluent in the first place. A paper published last week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society by Alain Goeppert of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute and colleagues reports on the utility of a solid material composed of silica impregnated with polyethylenimine.

The Trickiness of Coaxing CO2 Out: A Quick Chemistry Lesson

Chemists have long known how to remove CO2 from an air stream. It’s an acid/base thing. Because dissolved CO2 forms a weak acid (carbonic acid), one can very effectively remove CO2 from air by bubbling or passing the air over a basic solution. (A bottle of ammonia is an example of a base solution. A bottle of vinegar or Coca Cola is an example of weakly acidic solutions.) For CO2 removal, solutions of calcium or sodium hydroxide are often used.

Alternatively, solutions can be used that contain compounds that bind to CO2 through chemical reaction or physical absorption. Amines (carbon-based compounds derived from ammonia that are building blocks for proteins) work well in this way.

But there is a problem with both of these tried-and-true approaches: The CO2 dissolved in these solutions or bound in amines “likes” being just where it is, and so it requires energy to “convince” the CO2 to come back out. And the need for energy to do this drives up costs. And if you’re burning fossil fuels to make that energy, you’re kind of shooting yourself in the greenhouse footprint.

The authors’ experiments with polyethylenimine were very encouraging. The easily prepared and readily available substrate was able to pull CO2 from ambient air at some of the highest reported concentrations seen to date — even in the presence of humidity, which has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of other materials. The polyethylen
imine silica shed its CO2 easily and also stood up to repeated cycles of absorption. The authors conclude, “Clearly, adsorbents based on supported amines are promising inexpensive materials for the capture of CO2 from the atmosphere and warrant further studies.”

Promising enough to make that EPA emissions tracker obsolete? Who knows? Life is full of surprises.

filed under: carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide emissions, chemistry, climate change, faculty, global warming
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1 Comment

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  1. MMM
    Jan 18, 2012

    “Overall, the tool is pretty comprehensive, currently tracking more than 6,700 facilities that account for some 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; eventually, it will cover some 13,000 sources that account for between 85 and 90 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions.” Careful: I believe those percentages are for emissions from stationary sources. After all, the tool doesn’t capture transportation, which is 27% of US GHG emissions…

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