THE BLOG
12/28/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Open Letter to Warren Buffett: Why Not Run Those Coal-Fired Plants on Carbon Dioxide?

Dear Mr. Buffett:

I hope this letter will please you. For one thing, this is the first open letter addressed to you in, gosh, nearly a month. What's more, I won't ask you for money, investment advice, or a tax-deductible contribution. I simply hope to point out the possibility of turning a sow's ear into a silk purse, and thereby to do good by doing well.

2014-12-28-WarrenBuffett.jpg

(Original image: Aaron Freedman, lic. Creative Commons)

As you surely know, dozens of coal-fired power plants, representing over 40 gigawatts of electrical power, are due to be shut down in the next few decades. Among them are a couple of generators near Sioux City that you own via your holdings in MidAmerican Energy. To settle a lawsuit, MidAmerican agreed in 2013 to shut down two of its generators at the George Neal Energy Center by April 2016, and another pair near Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Now, one of those Sioux City plants may be able to run on natural gas, but the other, as I understand, would require an expensive conversion. So, as we say in Nebraska, here's the deal. Why not take a chance on converting it to run on carbon-plume geothermal instead?

More on that in a moment, but first let's talk about why those generators are being shut down. Coal-fired plants are deadly. Their effects are slow and hard to trace, but in the aggregate exhaust from coal-fired plants kills more than 10,000 Americans and costs $100 billion in medical expenses and lost work days each year. In comparison, all the nuclear power accidents in history put together come nowhere close. The evidence of harm from coal is so strong that your company caved rather than dispute the facts in federal court.

But that's only half the story. Power plants are the largest contributors to climate change, with three-quarters of the sector's greenhouse gases coming from coal. Mind you, it's not clear that fracking for natural gas is any better. The amount of methane escaping into the atmosphere at the wellhead may offset the reduced greenhouse gas released through burning in the power plant. And, no way we're going to replace 40 gigs of power with wind and solar. What we really need is a good alternative fuel for multi-megawatt generators.

Now, as I understand, you've not spoken your mind on climate change. However, as a realist and a philanthropist, you get it. I won't rehash all the converging lines of evidence and models, or talk about the overwhelming scientific consensus. I'll just point to Venus, where runaway greenhouse gases keep the average surface temperature a balmy 872 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, I hope we agree, Mr. Buffett, that even though oil is now cheaper than OJ and the price of coal has been plunging of late, for the sake of the coming generations we must find another way to generate. That's where carbon plume geothermal comes in. (I wrote a cover story about it for the Humanist Magazine earlier this year, but perhaps you missed it.)

Carbon plume geothermal is an ingenious system that takes the very stuff of global warming -- carbon dioxide -- and plunges it back underground. It then heats up and comes fizzing back to the subsurface, where it is trapped under caprock. A pipe drilled through the caprock captures the heated CO2 and runs it through the turbines, generating power, then pumps it back underground. The excess energy supplied by the Earth's deep underground heat is more than enough to run the system and generate surplus electricity. Using carbon dioxide rather than water makes it possible to build such plants across the nation, because while water must boil to be useful, CO2 can do the job at just 60 degrees Celsius -- and it's abundantly available wherever you have a coal-fired power plant.

2014-12-28-geothermal.jpg

(Source: Energy.gov)

At least, that's the theory. Much of the research and development were done by Dr. Martin O. Saar of the University of Minnesota and his then-graduate student Jimmy Randolph (now Dr. Randolph, chief scientist at the Heat Mining Co., now TerraCOH). Jeffrey Bielicki, assistant professor of energy policy and colleagues at the Ohio State University, along with Tom Buscheck at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have taken the concept to a new level, adding nitrogen to the mix and designing interlinked generators miles apart that can multiply the efficiency of the system.

Looks good on paper, but both technically and economically the idea needs to be put to the test. Who better than you, Mr. Buffett, to give it a try? Here you have some generators going dark, right next to coal-fired generators that, with proven equipment, can supply all the carbon dioxide you'd need. The cost of drilling deep underground has fallen, and thanks to the plunge in oil prices there will soon be plenty of idle drill rigs.

The cost of building new conventional generators is astronomical. In contemplating a conversion to carbon plume geothermal we're talking about millions versus billions. So, if you get a jump on this and find a way to make it profitable, fields of opportunity will open as other coal-fired plants shut down. And you just might blaze a trail toward a carbon-neutral future. Wishing you a happy, prosperous, and sustainable new year,

Yours,

Clay Farris Naff
Lincoln, Nebraska