Will carbon capture and storage ever make fossil fuels safe?

A UK parliament report has called for renewed investment in the storage of carbon emitted by industry. But will the technology ever come of age? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Join the debate. Post your views in the comments below, email karl.mathiesen.freelance@guardian.co.uk or tweet @karlmathiesen

8.05pm BST

A late correction.

Both Guardian CCS articles today make the mistake of stating that CCS will be fitted to the existing 4000 MW Drax Power Station. In fact the proposal is to build a smaller 400 MW coal-fired plant alongside to demonstrate a CCS variant known as oxyfuel combustion. You can read more at www.whiteroseccs.co.uk

The gas-fired Peterhead project is demonstrating another alternative CCS technology called post-combustion capture.

5.25pm BST

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a vital technology for avoiding dangerous climate change. MPs, Shell, the IPCC, the energy industry, the IEA and environmentalists all agree, with a minimum of vitriol. It’s almost eerie. Why is CCS, championed in every corner, stalling?

The large up-front cost of the test projects means governments are faced with investing billions in projects that they don’t know will work. Fossil fuel companies meanwhile, have little incentive to stump the cash themselves until carbon pricing forces their hand. This means that despite some good initiatives, enthusiasm for investment has been lacking.

3.59pm BST

@KarlMathiesen @guardianeco I think its possible, with this technology powering the country, we could lead the world with carbon capture.

@guardianeco @KarlMathiesen Don’t believe so, the best way of Carbon capture is to stop eradicating natural carbon reservoirs.

@KarlMathiesen 1/2 ‘Household bills could be £82 lower per year by 2030′, see http://t.co/EPocGxE8qt

@KarlMathiesen 2/2 Without CCS the total cost of limiting CO2 emissions to 450ppm could increase by 138%, IPCC (http://t.co/WdlxV4rCtH, p16)

@KarlMathiesen @guardianeco CCS will ultimately keep market power with fossil fuel companies until next crisis: when the resources finish

3.54pm BST

CCS is a difficult proposition for green groups. On the one hand, it has undeniable potential to move the world away from the precipice of dangerous climate change. But on the other, it makes business-as-usual burning of fossil fuels more likely than ever.

Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth said:

Fossil fuels cant be safe even if we get CCS to work. The reason is that if we are to avoid the worst of climate change we need to cut carbon emissions massively. For example the UKs Committee on Climate Change said by 2030 carbon emissions from electricity must be no more than 50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. Yet even with CCS the best gas-fired power station will release double this. Our priority has to be on getting off fossil fuels. We will need to develop CCS technology but this is for use in industry and to in the future enable us to grab carbon pollution out of the atmosphere. The idea that CCS provides fossil fuels with a get out of jail free card is a dangerous fallacy.

After years of unnecessary delay, getting on with the task of demonstrating the technical and commercial feasibility of CCS is an urgent priority for this Government and the next.

But the Government shouldnt plan significant investments in new fossil fuel plants today on the assumption that CCS technology will be available at an affordable cost in the future to capture emissions when we simply dont know that yet.

3.17pm BST

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is supportive of the findings of the ECCC report, said IEA analyst Simon Bennett. The agency’s modelling shows fossil fuel electricity production using CCS would be a cost effective part of global decarbonisation. The price of coal and gas power with CCS is estimated to be slightly less than offshore wind but higher than onshore wind. Because the nascent technology has not been fully trialled, there could be movement in those numbers, but Bennett said engineering reports suggested any movement would be slight.

How much will CCS cost? $/tonne of CO2 abated. Source: Shell/GCCSI pic.twitter.com/4BBdQsO4ea

"It is very clear that natural gas-fired power generation is not a low carbon source and will become a high carbon source on the grid in the not-too-distant future unless coupled with CCS. These are two challenges that could become critical in the medium term and so it would be disappointing if different low carbon options were presented as competing for the same public resources today. Against this backdrop, projects such as Peterhead cannot come online quickly enough."

Its a technology with so much promise that its tempting to assume someone will develop it, and building our plans to decarbonise on this assumption. This would be a mistake. But a bigger mistake would be to write off the possibility of developing it in the first place. We dont know if cost-effective CCS is possible, but if we dont help fund demonstration plants, well never know.

2.59pm BST

For 15 years, Statoil has been extracting natural gas from the Sleipner field in the middle of the North Sea. Here, nine per cent of the gas is CO2. Yet, in all that time, none of the CO2 has entered the atmosphere; instead, it has been pumped back into a layer of rock beneath the seabed. In this way, Statoil is preventing the release of an estimated one million tonnes of CO2 a year. CCS is a reality and has been for 15 years. What is proposed now is a scale up of the technology and a connection to a real power station. 40% of UK electric is from coal so CCS is needed for some time in the future until alternative low carbon sources are available.

Worksforcommunityorg made some good, if harshly couched, observations about what lies at the heart of this debate (before descending into profanity):

"Will carbon capture and storage ever make fossil fuels safe?"

The Guardian should employ some competent headline writers, instead of the ones who came up with that pathetic line. This isn’t a simplistic question of whether something is safe or not, it is about whether CCS is practical and affordable.

I worked on the Longannet CCS FEED study and it was obvious as soon as the Coalition government took over that the scheme wasn’t going to go ahead.

I don’t honestly believe they have any real interest in helping to develop the technology despite the potential business that could be generated for UK firms who would acquire the expertise to be leaders in the field.

It will be hideously and prohibitively expensive, but we can probably make it almost as safe as fracking.

1.34pm BST

Dr Luke Warren, chief executive of the Carbon Capture & Storage Association (CCSA), said:

The ECC Committees report on CCS and its recommendations is extremely timely and we very much share their concerns and frustrations on the substantial delay to the development of CCS in the UK. We strongly support the recommendations of the Committee, particularly in relation to the need for speed on projects both within and outside of the CCS competition.

"As well as highlighting the importance of successfully concluding the current competition we are extremely pleased to see that the Committee has identified the need for clarity surrounding the availability of CfDs for non-competition projects. There is a very real risk that, without a strong signal that these projects can access a CfD in parallel with the competition, these projects will be shelved.

While CCS has a role to play in decarbonising the energy mix, there is no single silver bullet in the energy trilemma. CCS is yet to be proven at scale, but renewable energy is here today and is already making a difference, slashing our emissions, creating jobs and bringing down its costs. We need a clear framework for decarbonisation to 2030, at UK and EU level, with targeted support for renewables to give investors confidence and keep the momentum in renewables going. An exciting prospect for the future is the combination of CCS with bioenergy, offering the prospect of carbon-negative energy generation that actually sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Our own research has found that the costs of meeting the UKs low-carbon targets could double to £60bn a year by 2050 at todays prices without the use of CCS. Our research mirrors and supports much of the ECCs report whose publication we welcome today."

1.34pm BST

Energy Minister Michael Fallon said:

The UK is ahead of the rest of Europe with two CCS projects in White Rose and Peterhead actively undertaking detailed engineering studies ahead of full construction. As well as the £1 billion we are investing in CCS, there will also be additional support through low-carbon Contracts for Difference for a number of years to come, so its important we take the time to get our decisions right and follow a robust process.

"Our vision for CCS in the UK does not stop at these first projects. We want to see a strong and successful CCS industry able to compete on cost with other low carbon technologies in the 2020s.

The government attitude towards CCS has been one of damaging neglect. It appears to be uninterested in the enormous potential for CCS in the UK. In our efforts to decarbonise, CCS is not an option but a necessity.

1.25pm BST

CCS makes sense on paper, but it has been difficult to deliver in reality. It requires enormous initial investment to create a working trial. Estimates of how much it will cost to deliver a working plant range from £1-2 billion. Unlike renewables, where it is possible to incrementally scale up from small trials, CCS has to begin at full size. For this reason it is a risky political proposition. What treasurer is willing to throw a billion pounds at an unproven technology?

Fossil fuel companies are assisting with the development of this technology. This week JJ Traynor, vice president of investor relations at Royal Dutch Shell, wrote a letter to investors extolling the advantages of CCS. Traynor wrote:

"Without CCS, emissions reduction will be more difficult, disruptive to the world’s economy, standard of living and cause more economic hardship."

Difficulty in bringing CCS projects from paper to practice. Source: Global CCS Institute pic.twitter.com/hEX2ikTv1u

1.00pm BST

CCS projects are also being developed in the UAE, Canada and the US, three of the world’s fossil fuel heartlands. A $1 billion project in Saskatchewan, Canada will be the first large scale commercial CCS facility when it starts up later this year. It will sell one million tonnes of CO2 to an oil company to be used in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). This involves injecting gas into the oil reservoir in order to force more to the surface. This use for CCS stretches the believability of claims that the technology is only a stop-gap that will help us transition away from fossil fuels.

11.48am BST

A report from Orion Innovations outlines the various approaches to CCS being trialled in the UK.

The capture process may take one of three forms:

Carbon capture and storage flow chart. Source: World Resource Institute pic.twitter.com/L1NYcclNsm

11.37am BST

One of the most exciting potential applications of CCS is it potential use in bio-energy power plants. Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs) could actually achieve negative emissions. Removing carbon from the atmosphere using the photosynthesis of plants, which are then burned for energy. The CO2 produced could then be trapped and stored underground.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2013 World Energy Outlook concluded that CCS (and especially Beccs) was a "distant" but "essential" technology for avoiding more than 2C of global warming. The IEA said:

"Such negative emissions result when the amount of CO2 sequestered from the atmosphere during the growth of biomass (and subsequently stored underground) is larger than the CO2 emissions associated with the production of biomass, including those resulting from land-use change and the emissions released during the transformation of biomass to the final product. So-called bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs) could be used in a wide range of applications, including biomass power plants, combined heat and power plants, flue gas streams from the pulp and paper industry, fermentation in ethanol production and biogas refining processes."

10.35am BST

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), as the name suggests, is a technology designed to silo CO2 released during industrial processes and store it underground in aeternum. Development has focused on the application of CCS to fossil fuel power stations, but it could be used in any industry with high carbon emissions.

According to the ECCC report, CCS technology could potentially keep the world from breaching its carbon budget. Since industrialisation, humans have emitted 515 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC). At least 780 GtC remain in fossil fuel reserves. But the world must stay beneath a total of 1000 GtC in order to avoid the 2C increase in temperature that scientists have highlighted as a climactic point of no return. The IPCC said in 2005 that the potential underground storage capacity for CCS is 545 GtC.

CCS – Potential to stop the world blowing the carbon budget. Source: ECCC report pic.twitter.com/ukEPNhJRck

CCS in depleted oil and gas reservoirs and other conventional geological settings is a low risk technology with huge potential to reduce future carbon emissions. If this potential is to be realised, urgent action is needed to develop subsurface storage capacity at a far faster rate than at present. The geology of the UKs near offshore, and its history of oil and gas exploration and production in the North Sea, presents a major opportunity for the UK to play a leading role in the global development of CCS technology.

Where would CO2 be stored in the UK? Source: Carbon Capture and Storage Association/ECCC pic.twitter.com/F5frBOkKJU

10.22am BST

Carbon Brief says the government has made a mess of CCS:

The government launched its first CCS competition in 2007 with the expectation that any funded projects would be operational by 2014. Suffice to say they’re not. The two awardees from that competition – E.On’s Kingsnorth project and Scottish Power’s Longannet scheme – terminated their plans in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

After scathing criticism from the National Audit Office for its handling of the first competition, the government launched a redesigned CCS funding scheme in 2012. Capture Power Limited’s White Rose project was awarded funding in 2013, with Shell and SSE’s Peterhead project getting the nod a year later.

10.15am BST

The Guardian’s head of environment Damian Carrington reports today:

The MPs on the energy and climate change select committee (ECCC) sharply criticised the government’s botched £1bn competition for the first plants, which launched in 2007 and had to be restarted in 2011, after the last competitor withdrew.

Tim Yeo MP, chair of the ECCC, said: After nearly a decade of delay, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has finally got near to delivering two pilot CCS projects in the UK. It must now fast-track these projects and reach final investment decisions before the election to ensure this technology can start delivering carbon savings by the 2020s.

10.13am BST

MPs have urged the UK government to fast track the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, saying its success is fundamental to avoiding dangerous climate change.

Using CCS, power stations and other industries would store their carbon emissions underground. Advocates of the technology say it could turn fossil fuel power stations into genuinely low carbon sources of power.

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