CCS success dependent on global attitude to CO2 reduction

The Kemper and Sask Power carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects have had differing experiences but those behind the scenes at both locations agree that only a significant commitment to reducing carbon emissions will allow the technology to flourish.

The Kemper project in Texas, US and the Sask Power Boundary Dam project in Canada are two of the world’s pioneers, with the latter enduring cost-related difficulties to date.

Kemper County is now projected to cost almost $5.6bn. Initially the project was estimated to cost $2.4bn. Howard J Hertzog, Senior Research Engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Power Engineering International that the project is expensive but to an extent that is expected on first-of-a-kind technology.

He says comparisons with the relatively successful Boundary Dam are unfair and success will depend on the seriousness of policy makers in tackling emissions.

“Sask Power is a much smaller project and uses mostly commercial technology. Kemper has much more first-of-a-kind aspects.”

“The future of CCS is closely tied to climate policy. If we decide to significantly cut C02 emissions CCS will be an important technology. If we have weak policy that requires only small to modest emissions reduction, then CCS may remain a niche technology.”

So what about the overall health and prospects for the technology in terms of being a genuine solution to the world’s climate problem?

Hertzog penned an opinion piece for the Conversation.com website recently, identifying carbon capture’s chief quandary ” funding.

“Just as CCS is making great progress in building demonstration plants, developing new and improved technologies, and understanding and managing risks, the funding to carry on these activities at the level needed has begun to shrink. A short-term focus has replaced long-term strategies.”

“This is a concern not just for people who consider CCS a critical technology, but should be worrisome for all who believe that mitigating climate change is a critical priority. We are not making the investments needed to meet a long-term goal of 80 per cent reductions in CO2 emissions by mid-century”.

Hertzog then took aim at the dependency on fuel-efficiency standards for light-duty vehicles and renewable portfolio mandates for utilities as solutions in combating CO2 emissions.

“Economists generally agree that these programmes are less effective and more costly than a carbon price for reducing CO2 emissions. If energy policies did focus on a long-term reduction of CO2, we would not see the slowdown in CCS we see today.”

Tyler Hopson, Senior Consultant, Media Relations & Issues Management at Sask Power sounds an optimistic note, with the relative success of Boundary Dam so far no doubt fuelling that glass half full perspective.

“We are pleased with performance to date. While we continue to fine-tune the process and work through the challenges that come with starting up a major project, the plant is exceeding expectations in some respects.”

The world’s first coal-fired commercial power plant equipped with CCS technology has the capacity to capture up to one million tonnes of CO 2 in 2015 and is on target to meet that goal.

“The project is generating vast amounts of data never before available to scientists and engineers around the world, and the numbers are very impressive,” said Mike Monea, SaskPower President of Carbon Capture and Storage Initiatives recently at the launch of a performance report. “People used to say there’s no proof that CCS works, a claim that is no longer valid.”

“Unit #3 is now producing affordable coal power for more than 100,000 homes and businesses for at least the next three decades, and it’s doing so 10 times more cleanly than other coal units and four times cleaner than a comparable natural gas unit,” said Monea.

Hopson told Power Engineering International he is a firm believer in the potential of the technology despite widespread scepticism about the costs in its development on a global scale.
Boundary Dam
“It’s encouraging to see other large-scale CCS projects moving forward, such as Kemper as well as the Petra Nova project in Texas by NRG, and several projects in the U.K. As the technology matures, more possibilities for CCS will become a reality.”

In common with Hertzog, there is also a realisation that the future of CCS is very much dependent on what way policy makers decide to go.

“The International Energy Agency has noted that as long as fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries play dominant roles in our economies, CCS will remain a critical greenhouse gas reduction solution.”

If reality dictates fossil power is not going to be shelved, CCS seems to offer a compelling answer. It is difficult to see how developing countries in particular, with a strong coal resource, are going to be incentivised for not using domestic fuel that drives their economies.

Ian Yeates, the SaskPower executive in charge of CCS, told the Guardian earlier this year, “There are 7,000 coal-fired turbines on the planet right now and they are not going to be turned off any time soon because people need the energy they produce. Is there going to be enough gas to replace all those units?”

“We are going to be burning fossil fuels as a world economy for many many decades if not a century or two as energy demands grow…something like carbon capture and sequestration will be of value to deal with that.”

It remains to be seen if the progress of other technologies can allow the world to consign CCS to storage itself. New initiatives, particularly recent announcements from Tesla and the possibility of successful renewable storage offer hope that the world may not need to take on what, in the case of Kemper at least, is a prohibitively expensive choice for tackling emissions.

Yet if the leaps required in renewable energy and storage aren’t being made quickly enough, CCS does offer a temporary contingency that policymakers may have to seriously consider.

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