Clinton Vince

Llewellyn King: Carbon capture may be key to stopping climate catastrophe

Schematic showing both terrestrial and geological sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions from a    biomass    or    fossil fuel power station   .

Schematic showing both terrestrial and geological sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions from a biomass or fossil fuel power station.

In the ’70s and ’80s, black was gold. Coal was king.

Coal in tandem with nuclear were to be the white knights of the United States, as we struggled with the Arab oil embargo, price-gouging by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and declining oil production at home.

In 1977, the fledgling Department of Energy declared natural gas a “depleted” resource. Today, it battles with solar for cost advantage. The technology of fracking changed everything. Never forget technology’s possible revolutionary impact.

Solar and wind -- today’s energy darlings -- were struggling as the National Laboratories sought to make them workable. Solar was thought to have its future in mirrors concentrating heat on “power towers”. Wind was regarded with skepticism; even the shape of the towers and blades was in flux.

Everything that moved would be electrified. Nuclear would be used to make electricity. Coal would be burned as a utility and industrial fuel, and it would be gasified and liquified for transportation and other uses.

Environmentalists were pushing coal as an alternative to nuclear, which they were convinced was dangerous: In the United States it has cost no lives, but gas and oil in various ways have taken their toll.

Coal and nuclear were bright stars in a dark sky.

In 1974, at the White House, Donald Rice, who later ran the Rand Corporation, speculated in an interview with me on whether there might be oil and gas in the Southern Hemisphere, then considered unlikely and now, with production in South America and South Africa, a game-changer. Beware of the conventional wisdom.

All of this came flooding back at an extraordinary summit on global energy horizons convened in Washington recently by Dentons, the world’s largest law firm with offices in 79 countries. By pulling in lawyers from Uzbekistan to London, Dentons’ summit was able to fit America’s energy transformation into the global reality.

Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, laid out a picture that is sobering. He said that by 2040, the world would be pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than today notwithstanding dramatic actions to curb burning fossil fuels in North America, Europe and China. The problem is the growth in demand for electricity in what is being called the “Global East,” where new coal plants are coming online in China, India and Indonesia among other countries. This despite all deploying solar and wind, and India and China having aggressive nuclear growth plans. The electricity need in the region is great and fuel solution is fossil, mostly coal.

Enter Ernest Moniz. The former secretary of energy who now heads his own think tank, Energy Futures Initiative, is a passionate backer of carbon capture use and storage. Moniz, also an adviser to Dentons, is laying out a whole scenario of “carbon capture from air” that is persuasive. It is part of his newly unveiled “Green Real Deal.”

Having chaired two carbon capture conferences, I have wondered why the technology, which gets more sophisticated all the time, has not been embraced by coal producers with vigor. They have been cooler than the utilities who somewhat favor the technology.

Clinton Vince, chair of Dentons’ U.S. energy practice and co-chair of the firm’s global energy sector, reminded the summit of the global importance of nuclear, now shunned in the United States for cost reasons. He sees nuclear as vital to climate goals around the world.

Unlike the ’70s and early ’80s, there is no shortage of energy. The challenges are in how clean it can get; how it can be stored, if it is electricity; and how fast technology can change the energy equation -- as it has over the past four decades -- to save the climate without restricting economic growth.

The commodity that is in truly short supply is time.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is and he’s based in Rhode Island and Rhode Island.

Llewellyn King: The rush to become 'smart cities' is on around the world

View toward the waterfront of Boston, considered the second “smartest’’ city in America, after New York.

View toward the waterfront of Boston, considered the second “smartest’’ city in America, after New York.

Ireland was a country that thought, before the 1990s, that could not compete. Its rail system was primitive, its ports were outdated and small, and its roads were problematic — mostly you had to share them with sheep or tractors hauling peat wagons.

It looked as though Ireland was doomed to be one of the least competitive countries in Europe and would continue to have “structural” unemployment of 20 percent and higher.

Then a miracle: Ireland combined its greatest assets — literacy and superior education system — with the computer revolution, and it became a boom country. Ireland, rather than depending on exporting bacon, butter and linens, started exporting services by internet.

It became a computing center for Europe, and American and Asian companies flooded in. Galway, a university town, was ground zero for top computer companies.

Ireland went from nowhere to wearing the crown of “Celtic Tiger.” Businesses around computing, and those serving the foreign executives, boomed. Ireland shook off the dead weight of centuries.

There are lessons in the Irish experience for cities as they struggle to become “smart cities” and to compete as the smartest cities in livability and business friendliness. Can some ailing Midwest or city in Upstate New York burst the bonds of their Rust Belt past and find new futures as smart cities, attracting investment and technology-based business?

Largely unseen, cities from Rochester, N.Y., to San Antonio are seeking the title, even though the full dimensions of what makes a city smart are still being thrashed out.

A global study, undertaken by the Singapore-based Eden Strategy Institute, puts London at No. 1 and Singapore at No. 2 in the world. New York leads in the United States, closely followed by Boston; Rochester, N.Y., is on the list. Out of 50 world cities, just 12 U.S. cities make the list.

But many U.S. cities are in the race to be the super-smart, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to San Antonio. Smart cities are a place where the old world of bricks and mortar meets the new world of artificial intelligence.

The players, besides the cities themselves, are the telephone giants (especially AT&T and Verizon), the electric utilities, a wide variety of software vendors and consultants. They are vying with each other for business at the city and county level.

The telephone companies are hoping to use their emerging 5G technology as the way in which machines and systems will talk to each other. IBM is interested in all aspects of the city of the future, including the use of blockchain as the primary record-keeper. Amazon wants to begin smart deliveries, maybe by drone.

Even law firms — and Dentons, the world’s largest, is out front — will be needed to write the contracts and guide their clients. Clinton Vince, who heads the U.S. energy practice at Dentons, says the firm has taken the unusual step of establishing a “think tank” within the firm to work on smart cities.

Smart cities implementation needs local political approval and encouragement; the action is in the city councils and mayors’ offices, and county boards, not in Washington.

As with so many things, it is technology that may change our lives as much or more than policy. Already, the effect of computing in the way we live in cities can be seen everywhere — from those pesky scooters that are on the streets of many cities, and which rely on computer networks and GPS, to Uber and Lyft ride-sharing and Airbnb.

Down the road, smart technologies will have to decide how electric cars are to be charged and where; how autonomous vehicles will operate in cities and where they will park themselves between assignments.

The building blocks are electricity and telephony. They will also be the managers of the old infrastructure, surveilling pipelines, water systems, roads and even traffic lights. The idea is to slave the old infrastructure to the new infrastructure for efficiency and instant response to problems.

Some cities will lead, but none will be unaffected. Smart is coming fast and will be here to stay. Will those who do not catch the wave become “stupid cities”?

Llewellyn King, based in Washington and Rhode Island, is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS.


On Twitter: @llewellynking2