I’m sure many of you have, at some point in your journeys through the energy and renewable world heard the term ‘carbon-capture and storage’, or more simply ‘CCS’, but might not have known fully what it was, how it works or why it is being given such prominence in modern policy discussion. Well here’s my attempt at giving you a brief but hopefully in-depth look at the technology and the science surrounding some of the obsession associated with big oil companies, the Republicans and general economists.
CCS does mostly what it says on the tin; it aims to capture carbon or CO2 from the fumes and emissions given off by dirty industry, such as oil, coal or gas burning power plants, usually by grabbing the stuff out of the air with scrubbers or biological substances, before condensing it down into liquid form which can be easily transported. This lovely carbon-ooze is subsequently pumped elsewhere, generally far from the source, and deep into the Earth’s crust, within depleted fossil fuel reserves or geologically appropriate formations, such as aquifers or rock beds.
Via this technology, it is greatly hoped that carbon emissions from our already well-established dirty fossil industries can be hugely reduced, without radical changes in attitude and infrastructure required. We’ll see why this is not the grand idea is sounds to be.
The whole science of capturing the CO2 has been relatively well-tested on a small scale, with multiple projects spanning from the start of the millennia, such as simple scrubbing of power plant chimneys. However, capture on a larger scale has proved a much more ambitious and expensive venture, with price-tags commonly running into the hundreds of millions if not billions just for the initial CCS stages. Examples of these include projects in Denmark through Vattenfall, pilot capture facilities in Sweden and Norway and greater Europe, with plenty more in the planning stage (http://www.bgs.ac.uk/qics/). Unfortunately practically all of the projects currently in play, whether they’re still in planning or near-completion, only involve the ‘capture’ part of CCS, merely test-beds for working out the kinks in collecting the stuff for subsequent storage, with the resultant carbon being released into the atmosphere once the experiments are complete. Only eight (in 2011) CCS plants were actually injecting CO2 back into the ground worldwide, with at least three of them acting purely as partners to deep-sea offshore drilling platforms, collecting their waste and pumping it back into the seabed, to no real net gain to society.
As for the larger scale storage aspect of CCS, nearing 100 projects are in place since mid-2012, but current financial and political woes have all but put the majority of these on the shelf, no doubt for the indefinite future, seen as far too expensive, risky and a distraction from the real issue at hand. Specifically, the EU recently slashed its fund for CCS from a prospective £4.8bn to just £1bn, with finalised figures coming in a month or so, meaning that the 12 projects originally guaranteed funding are no in serious jeopardy. Similar issues are being experienced by the industry globally, as the idea of big, high-risk, high-dollar energy resources such as nuclear rapidly fall out of favour with both the public and professionals.
This however does not seem true in the US, where the [unfortunate] boom in shale gas extraction has fuelled great interest in ways to reduce the already disgustingly damaging practice of fracking and shale prospecting. Shell has been a major player in this region of the world, jumping on the natural gas bandwagon without hesitation, setting up shop in Alberta, where one of the world’s largest reserves of shale gas resides. Just google this yourself and switch to images and before long you will understand why myself and many others recoil at the very idea of extracting this utter mess. Anyway, back on topic.
Recently Shell announced that it would be financing a $1.36bn CCS plant at its Alberta tar sand operation, which hopes to capture and inject 1m tonnes of CO2 into the ground beneath, with the Canadian and Alberta governments providing well over $850mn of personal investment. Not only would this be first of its kind to link CCS with tar sand extraction, it would also become the poster boy project for Shell’s quest to put CCS on the energy map as a viable alternative to getting off their asses and doing something else cleaner. As a matter of fact the project is called ‘Quest’; how apt of you Shell. Multiple federal governments involved state how useful this could be in cutting their emissions below the needed 17% of 2005 levels by 2020, without mentioning some of the negative side-effects the technology brings. Back in our neck of the woods, with the new UK minister reshuffle, it looks like John Hayes and Owen Paterson, a once self-proclaimed advocate of CCS, might start looking into how it could work over here, at no doubt similarly great expense.
So it sounds good right? Suck CO2 from our emissions, pump it back into ground and use for later; I’ll admit, it’s a romantic and tempting idea, but one fraught with obvious problems. It’s estimated that attaching one of these CCS plants to an existing coal plant could ramp up the energy needs 25%-40%, with overall costs of energy increasing up to 90%! Because, at current technology levels, so much money and power is required to actually sequester to the carbon itself, this cost is passed onto the developer and ultimately the consumer, us, as is the case with all new energy concepts. Therefore, unless CCS advances so far in efficiency and practice, it will only ever serve to increase plant costs and the energy requirements of something designed to reduce our emissions.
What is even more aggravating is that the silly money being ploughed into CCS by a select few big players could just as easily be used for, oh I don’t know, implementing and financing already well-known and respected renewable technologies, like wind or solar, which not only don’t produce carbon anyway, but still actually produce energy at a cheaper price than existing plants. This is the common cry from critics of the CCS industry, who state money is being needlessly wasted and wrongfully directed, with little positive results to show for it.
Another typically human response which would come from a widescale adoption of this technology, would be to effectively abandon any drastic need to reduce demand and cut the building of new fossil fuel plants. With CCS in play, we can happily get on with our lives, guzzling gas and coal-fired electricity without feeling guilty for the environment; emissions don’t matter, because the magic of CCS will stow it away safe and sound, out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately this likely won’t be the case for decades, if not centuries, as getting the technology to the point where all of the CO2 emitted is captured and stored without leakage is a pipedream never to be realised.
Economically, it also makes little sense. What company would want to take responsibility for the CO2 stored by one of these projects? Not only would this contract have to be on an effectively infinite timescale, a liability nobody wants, but we simply do not have a clue about how well re-stored carbon stays where we want it to. We need only be reminded of an event at Lake Nyos, Cameroon in 1986, where a nearby volcano suddenly belched out a cubic km of CO2 gas naturally sequestered, causing the silent but rapid asphyxiation of 1,700 local villagers. While this may be used as a scare story by some, I want to emphasise I am using it as a warning of what could happen if just a small leak was sprung in one of these artificial carbon stores, especially if poor regulation and safety are taken into consideration, a common accusation pointed at the nuclear waste industry now.
It is a shame undoubtedly, that such a technology will likely never be used to help us achieve a sustainable future, but I feel this is the simple truth. We have the necessary means to power a growing global populace through renewable means alone, although the route there will be a radical and initially expensive one. Only recently, a scientific paper outlining a long study into the viability of sourcing 95% of our energy needs by 2050 concluded that it was, if done right and with proper adoption of technologies available to us now, entirely plausible. CCS isn’t mentioned once throughout the whole study. Despite a group assessment commissioned by the UK DECC this year, known as the TINA studies, touting CCS’s abilities to cut costs and create billions in revenue, the associated risks and ranges on such projections were still far too large to ignore.
In this respect, unless Shell can somehow show the world that CCS is really the way forward on our path to a clean future, and I somewhat don’t believe this is their primary agenda, the idea of sucking CO2 out of dirty industry and putting it away for the next generation will likely slowly pass into history. Although a nice premise, we simply don’t need it. I think the other renewable tech we have has our backs covered in a sensible future.