CCS remains at the crossroads

The future of carbon capture and storage technology continues to be uncertain with conflicting reports this week serving only to illustrate its status as a limbo technology.

Not mentioned once in the COP21 Paris agreement, and dropped by the UK government in a very high profile fashion last month, has the death knell sounded for CCS?

Or are policy makers simply not ready to enable the substantial investment required in these financial straitened times, despite the environmental imperative?

The British decision not to go ahead with the billion pound Peterhead project might now look premature if a report from the UK Energy Research Centre on Tuesday is to be taken at face value.

According to their analysis gas only has a stopgap role in moving Britain to low-carbon energy until 2020 and will then be limited without CCS.

Gas-fired power has been championed by the Conservative government but the report’s authors warn of a limited contribution without being complemented by a technology to which they have just delivered a massive thumbs down.

Britain has set an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 and gas has been seen as a bridging fuel until more clean energy comes online since it emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil, but more than nuclear or renewable energy.

“Without CCS gas must be steadily phased out over the next 35 years and almost entirely removed by 2050,” the report says.

The UKERC also insists that any new power plants which are built to replace coal will have to operate at very low load factors in the 2030s and beyond unless they are retrofitted with CCS technology and investors are unwilling to build new capacity without strong incentives.

“The government hasn’t realised that just having the capacity market isn’t going to do the job…(it) is going to have to put more money on the table somehow or other to get those gas plants built,” UKERC director Jim Watson said.

While the above reads as a significant motive for the UK government to reverse its decision, another report this week pours cold water on the prospects of CCS actually being able to deliver a vital aspect of its supposed USP ” storage.

According to a team from à‚ Penn State University, US in the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, even if carbon capture is possible, sequestration in the rocks is fraught because the gas can find multiple ways to escape.

The team tested laboratory reactions that involve sandstone and limestone ” two of the sedimentary rocks found most often in geological strata ” and water and carbon dioxide.

The scientists reasoned that the trapped gas à¢Ë†’ with a little help from natural chemistry à¢Ë†’ could find its way back to the surface anyway. So it represents an uncertain strategy.

Li Li, a petroleum and natural gas engineer said, “Even if it doesn’t escape to the Earth’s surface, there are concerns that it may leak into groundwater drinking aquifers.”

Power Engineering International put it to Dr David Reiner, leading Cambridge academic and former adviser on energy to the British government that resistance to pursuing CCS was growing, that it is perceived as just too expensive. He disagrees.

“I would take issue with the claim that ‘the reluctance to commit to the technology seems to be hardening’. à‚ From my perspective, CCS deploymentà‚ isà‚ a fairly goodà‚ measureà‚ of national and international commitment to combatting climate change. à‚ If every majorà‚ analysis such as fromà‚ the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change orà‚ IEA (or at the UK level ETI and CCC) consistentlyà‚ shows that CCS is necessary to accomplish decarbonisation at least cost and CCS is widely viewed as ‘too expensive’ then I am not sure what clearer indication you could have that serious efforts to reduce emissions is simply viewed as too expensive or not feasible.”

“Other low-carbonà‚ options such as solar or windà‚ provideà‚ otherà‚ benefits such as energy security so it is not surprising that the fewà‚ CCS projects that have gotten off the ground such as Boundary Dam or Quest in Canada both also provide other benefits beyond climate changeà‚ alone. à‚ The very large capital investments involved in CCSà‚ have proven to beà‚ another significant barrier, but the problem is that there are significant economies of scale and it would generallyà‚ be quite inefficient to invest in smaller scale CCS projects.”

Despite it still looking like a valuable resource in theory, the scientific evidence still isn’t 100 per cent pointing in its favour.

Dr Phil Williamson, an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia, UK told Nature Journal that there are environmental risks to almost any potential solution, whether deep burial or other solutions such as investment in bioenergy crops and tree plantations.

“All involve massive expense, some of them remove land urgently needed for crops and every single solution could have some troubling knock-on effect that disturbs the natural ecosystems on which all life depends.”

“Removal will be expensive and is currently unproven at the scale needed ” so it would be much better to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible.”

There is still confidence in some quarters that CCS will turn the corner required to make it the contender promised a decade ago. In Canada earlier this month, BHP’s announced a $20m investment in the creation of a global centre for carbon capture and storage knowledge to be located at the Innovation Place Research Park in Regina, Saskatchewan, close to the Boundary Dam project.

BHP Billiton Chief Commercial Officer Dean Dalla Valle said “by enhancing global access to the data, information and lessons learned from SaskPower’s unique Boundary Dam facility ” the first power project to successfully integrate carbon capture, transport and storage ” we will hopefully stimulate broader deployment of the technology.”

Despite the success of Boundary Dam it remains to be seen if CCS can proliferate as its proponents urge it must.

Advocacy by such as the IPCC and the IEA shows that CCS isn’t just a trick by the fossil fuel industries to avoid phase-out, but it appears that the world’s governments are prepared to look at every other method of decarbonisation rather than facilitate the investment it would need.

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