Emission impossible? Carbon capture and storage event report

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2012
factory chimney

Amid flurries of hot air and gas leaks, delegates at a carbon capture and storage event at the Royal Society in London on 7 February plotted a way forward for the beleaguered industry. Eoin Redahan reports.

Is it right to continue a space programme when dole queues lengthen, or is it better to light the frontiers for the benefit of future generations? The carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry is in a similar bind. Significant resources are going into technologies that are expensive and unproven.

Delegates at the Carbon Capture and Storage: Demonstration Programmes and the Pathway to 2050 emphasised the importance of CCS in the energy mix. As Adam Dawson, of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), noted, there are two primary low carbon technologies in the UK at the moment: wind and nuclear. If an 80% reduction in carbon emissions is to be achieved by 2050, he feels it would be prudent to adopt more than two low-carbon energy sources.

Nevertheless, the public remains unconvinced. Retrofitting existing plants with post-combustion and pre-combustion technologies is energy-intensive and expensive. According to Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage, post-combustion capture can increase energy costs by 20–30%. Eventually, the organisation hopes this figure will fall to about 10%, but the fear is that irreparable climate change will have already occurred by the time this comes about.

Green groups have also voiced concerns about the use of the captured carbon. Few oppose its transportation for use in enhanced oil recovery (EOR), but sequestration methods have been met with stinging criticism.

In some cases, carbon has been injected into underground geological formations (such as aquifers). Suggested sequestration alternatives include exhausted gas fields and as lake deposits on the sea floor. Proponents claim that carbon can be safely trapped underground for millennia, but the potential for natural disaster and human error have left many unconvinced.

Thus far, governments and industry have proven equally reticent in practice, if not in rhetoric. There are currently only eight projects operating on a large commercial scale (capturing, transporting and storing 500,000t or more of CO2 per annum) in the world.

Of the 27 EU member states, only two (Spain and Romania) followed through on the EU Storage of Carbon Dioxide Directive in June last year. Furthermore, when taking into account that CCS is not recognised by the Kyoto Protocol, the vista looks bleak.

‘There is no point in wasting money unless there is a global agreement,’ said John Gibbons, Professor of Power Plant Engineering and Carbon Capture in the University of Edinburgh, UK. ‘As and when we get global agreement, we’ll be rolling [technologies] out in larger quantities.’

This would go some way towards explaining the UK Government’s stance. After four years, it has jettisoned the Longannet CCS Demonstration project in Scotland, and delegates lamented the lack of firm commitment towards future projects. As Gibbons said, ‘Policy is a bit of an empty gesture without delivery’.

Delegates emphasised the importance of getting a consolidated roadmap from DECC and, more importantly, a functioning CCS demonstration project (for gas and possibly coal) that would provide motivation for developers and potential industrial partners.

With the exorbitant start-up cost of CCS projects often stymying progress, there was a call for more government intervention. According to Dr Harsh Pershad, Senior Consultant at Element Energy in London, aquifer appraisal alone (for sequestration purposes) can take between five and seven years. ‘The private sector cannot invest in that. It simply costs too much.’

The issue of government intervention in creating clusters for more efficient CCS was also raised. ‘If you leave it to the market,’ Pershad noted, ‘you will get a non-optimal location’. According to Dr Prem Mahi, of Mott McDonald in Brighton, UK, ‘Transport storage makes up 50% of the cost. If you’re looking for cost reduction, clusters are the answer.’

However, even with the implementation of these measures, further investment is needed. Lynn Hunter, who leads TUV NEL’s CCS activities, pinpointed the urgent need for technology that measures flow, composition and leakage measurements in prospective plants. As with many of the professionals present, she underlined the need to get a working prototype built. There was a consensus that a functional demonstration plant (ideally for both gas and coal plants) would accelerate learning and provide much needed motivation for those working in the sector.

Nevertheless, the UK Government has assured sceptics that its commitment to CCS remains steadfast. Dawson reiterated the £1bln it will commit towards future projects. He added that the progress made in other countries, such as the Rotterdam Capture and Storage Demonstration Project in the Netherlands, will stimulate the industry as a whole. However, he added, ‘If we can’t remunerate the technology, it isn’t going to work’.

At the moment CCS poses many questions, but it provides few answers. It is unproven. It may never become commercially viable, and the public may never accept sequestration. Yet, delegates agreed that it should be afforded the opportunity to prove its worth in the low carbon energy mix.

In his concluding remarks, Dr Alan Whitehead, MP and Member of the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, said that CCS is being developed ‘for the greater good’.

He could be right, and he may mean it, but it still sounded ominously like political rhetoric.