Researchers at Michigan Technological University have studied how many plants like switchgrass or trees it would take to capture all the carbon emissions from coal-fired generating plants in the US. The answer is — 62% of all the arable land in the US would need to be planted with crops that are best suited for capturing carbon or 89% of the entire US would need to be covered with forests.
“We know that climate change is a reality, but we don’t want to live like cavemen,” says Joshua Pearce, professor of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering at MTU. “We need a method to make carbon neutral electricity. It just makes no sense whatsoever to use coal when you have solar available, especially with this data.” Offsetting the carbon emissions from a 1 GW coal generating plant would require planting a new forest larger than the state of Maryland, the researchers claim.
The research relied on data from more than 100 different sources to compare the greenhouse gas emissions and land transformation that would be needed to neutralize the carbon emissions resulting from every type of energy producing technology. They found that getting energy from coal requires 13 times more carbon sequestration than obtaining energy from solar panels. Their findings are published in the journal Nature.
“If your goal is to make electricity without introducing any carbon into the atmosphere, you should absolutely not do a coal plant,” Pearce says. The carbon emissions from coal are only part of the problem. Coal plants also release sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide in significant quantities, both of which have been shown to have negative impacts on human health.
Pearce says the research team gave coal power every benefit of the doubt, assuming best case efficiency and effective carbon capture systems. On the other hand, solar power efficiency is getting better all the time as new techniques such as mixing agriculture with solar farms become more common and industry figures out how to increase the average output of solar panels.
The takeaway from the research, according to Pearce, is that the best way to reduce carbon emissions is not to try to capture them after they are created but to not create them in the first place. For that, solar power is the only logical choice.
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