The Path to Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction (Part 1)

Last week I participated in a business roundtable discussion in Toronto hosted by Canada’s Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE).  The focus of the meeting was to bring together industry emitters and solution providers for a collective discussion about how to meet the province’s greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 37% below 1990 levels by the year 2030.

These types of conversations are occurring around the world in various forms as each nation participating in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris formulate policies to meet the emission goals agreed upon.  Although the implementation details will undoubtedly vary within the global community, many of the key challenges and opportunities are common to all.

In preparation for the meeting, the OCE requested feedback from the invited participants regarding the appropriate path forward, the roles each of us can play, and the barriers to success.  I believe these questions form a useful framework for many governments that are grappling with the same issues.

Clean the Smokestack?

OCE:  OCE welcomes industry stakeholder feedback on the following questions: Looking forward to 2030 and Ontario’s GHG emissions target of 37% below 1990 levels, what do you view as the path forward for the Province to meet this emission reduction target?

Isotherm Energy:  There are two general approaches to lowering emissions:

  1. Reduction of emissions between the combustion source and the smokestack.  This is a near term solution that reduces atmospheric emissions, but must still address the captured carbon.
  2. Enable greater adoption of renewable sources to accelerate transition away from fossil fuels.  This is a mid-term solution that addresses the problem at the source by reducing carbon based fuels.

A balance of these two approaches is ideal.

The “clean the smokestack” approach is by far the historically favored solution to reducing airborne emissions of all kinds.  My experience with this approach started with my first engineering job in 1982 at a 2200 MW coal-fired power plant.  The plant was finishing a nearly half-billion dollar installation of precipitators to remove particulates from the smokestacks to meet regulations.  At the time, the industry was denying any connection between the sulfur contained in the coal being burned and acid rain miles away in the direction of the prevailing winds aloft.  Many years later, the same plant finally made a capital investment of nearly two billion dollars to install flue gas scrubbers that remove most of the sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, again to meet regulatory requirements.  No doubt, they are now looking at an even larger price tag for reducing carbon emissions.


Hydrocarbon droplet combustion soot formed during a drop tower test at NASA


Of course, this smokestack approach is not unique to the stationary power generation industry.  In 1985, I was recruited by NASA to develop space experiments for the space shuttle to study the effects of low gravity on combustion phenomena.  During our early development testing in drop towers on earth that provide a few seconds of weightlessness, we filmed the formation of soot emanating from liquid hydrocarbon fuel droplets that had never been previously observed nor predicted.

In a subsequent discussion about soot formation with one of our principal investigators, he commented that soot is a big health problem, and used diesel fuel as an example.  He explained that there is an upper limit on size above which the lungs can expel an inhaled particle, and a lower limit below which a particle is absorbed into the body via the alveoli in the lungs.  But for sizes between those upper and lower limits, the lungs can neither expel nor absorb a particle.  And diesel soot particles are in that size range that can become permanently entrapped in the lungs.  That’s why diesel trucks have their tail pipe exit so high above the ground, he concluded.

Observing this smokestack approach to airborne emissions reveals some inherent recurring patterns.  These include very long cycles of:

  • Growing evidence regarding the detrimental impacts of a particular emission
  • Public denials of the data by entrenched interests
  • Eventual policies and regulations to address the issue
  • Costly implementation of commercially available systems targeting the emission

These cycles often take decades to culminate in the reduction of the target emission, while it’s detrimental health and environmental impacts continue to grow in the interim.  And in the end, another symptom of the core problem is addressed without addressing the root cause: the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels.

In my next post, I’ll touch on the second part of the answer we gave the OCE for the path forward.  Accelerating the adoption of renewable energy sources requires systems integration, application optimization, and sustainable energy storage.

Matt Moran is a Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy and has been developing power, thermal, and fluid systems since 1982.  He has a passion for the business and engineering of technology development and its integration into commercial products. Matt was the Sector Manager for Energy and Materials at NASA Glenn Research Center where he worked for over 30 years.  He has also co-founded or been a key contributor to five technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering consulting to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here