Can carbon targets be met without CCS?

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Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe lignite power station in Brandenburg, the site of a pilot 30 MW oxyfuel CCS plant Source: Vattenfall

Professor Wim Turkenburg, director of Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute, a sustainable development research group, shares his perspective on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a critical element in future electricity generation with energy consultant Jacob Klimstra.

PEi: Do you agree with the description of CCS as a “critical transitional technology” for achieving a low-carbon economy?

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Professor Wim Turkenburg

Turkenburg: Yes, world leaders have agreed that total global greenhouse gas emissions should not exceed 1000 billion tonnes between 2000 and 2050. This limit is based on the two-thirds to three-quarters probability of predictions behind measures to keep the global temperature rise below 2 à‚°C. At the current emission level of greenhouse gases, the 1000 billion tonnes will already be exceeded in the year 2030. It is close to impossible to cover global energy needs through renewables by 2020, so CCS is a critical and crucial technique. Without CCS, the target of reducing greenhouse gases will not be met.

PEi: The use of the word “transitional” could imply that CCS is a short-term rather that a definitive solution to cutting carbon. Do you foresee commercial-scale CCS being only utilized for a relatively short period ” e.g. until the renewable energy base reaches critical mass ” or do you believe CCS will become a fundamental part of the world’s power generation mix?

Turkenburg: Although I believe in the huge potential of renewable energy sources, the desire for energy in the world is so high that a full transition to using only renewables by the year 2050 is impossible. If we want to achieve the reductions in greenhouse gases needed to avoid excessive global warming, we have to continue capturing CO2 even from energy sources based on biomass. So, CCS is needed for many, many decades. There is no other option.

PEi: Europe’s carbon reduction targets suggest we need to demonstrate the commercial viability of CCS by 2015″2020. In your opinion, is this realistic?

Turkenburg: Technically, we can demonstrate CCS already, since it is state-of-the-art in countries such as Norway and the USA. Therefore, in that respect, it is a realistic timeframe. With respect to commercial viability, it depends on the price we set for carbon emissions.

With a carbon price in the range of $15 to $20 per tonne, the technique is not yet economical. A carbon price around $60 to $80 per tonne would be sufficient to make the technique economically viable. The price of CO2 has to reflect the real global impact of its emissions. In Norway, the tax on CO2 is already high enough to make CCS projects commercially viable. If governments in other countries cannot introduce such an adequate price, they have to stimulate CCS demonstration projects with tax money.

Demonstration projects of a size of, for example, 100 MW are needed for the sector to learn from building industrial-scale installations. Such a learning process will lead to reducing costs and improving technologies. Scientific institutes such as universities can assist in solving issues that are arising. However, most of the basic processes are already well understood. In my opinion, a large number of real-scale demonstration projects is crucial.


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Statoil has implemented CO2 storage in porous sand rock at the Sleipner Vest field, from which natural gas has a carbon dioxide content of about 9 per cent Source: Kjetil Alsvik/Statoil

PEi: How do you respond to people and organizations that say CCS will never work and that money should not be spent on its development or deployment?

Turkenburg: It is generally a matter of insufficient background knowledge. On the one hand, many people think that a transition to a full renewable society can be achieved in one or two decades. That is unrealistic considering the desire for economic growth all over the world.

On the other hand, some people are afraid of leaking storage systems. It is, of course, very important to demonstrate first that CO2 storage can be done safely and reliably. Carrying out a first demo in an area with a dense population is not very clever, from a sociological perspective.

People are not familiar with the technologies and in that case one easily develops a not-in-my-backyard effect. The technology should be demonstrated in areas where citizens do not feel threatened. That is what the Norwegians did, with storage underneath the North Sea.

PEi: In your opinion, what are currently the most promising CCS pilot and demo projects?

Turkenburg: Statoil in Norway has shown that CCS can be done safely. In many areas in the world CO2 is injected into oil wells and gas wells to enhance oil and gas production. All these projects have a good reputation with respect to safety and effectiveness.

PEi: What is currently limiting CCS’s commercial development and deployment? Is it technology, financing or political will, or a combination of all three?

Turkenburg: The technology is there. The major barrier is the uncertainty about CO2 prices. If the world would set the already mentioned price of $60 to $80 per tonne over a time span of decades, I am sure that many industries and power plants would rapidly be equipped with CCS.

It might be that countries’ fear of losing economic competitiveness reduces political enthusiasm to set up strict legislation such as in Norway. That, however, should not deter the world from taking measures to avoid excessive global warming.

PEi: How much of a setback for the commercial deployment of CCS is the recent cancellation of high-profile CCS demo projects by E.ON and Fortum ” Kingsnorth in the UK and Meri-Pori in Finland, respectively?

Turkenburg: Hopefully, this is a signal for policymakers that they have to reach agreement on a global level. I can imagine that a single company is not willing to run any financial risks. However, it might also be good for the image of power plant owners to show to their customers that their companies are dedicated to an environmentally acceptable future. Spending just a few per cent of the large profits that have recently been reported for these companies would be sufficient for effective demonstration projects.

I sincerely hope that the E.ON demonstration project near Rotterdam will be continued, since it is a very good example of a learning process with many dedicated parties involved. Storing the captured CO2 in the North Sea is a very good option there.

PEi: How important is it for countries and/or regions to have an effective carbon market and a strong carbon price ” or is a fixed global tax on CO2 also needed so that investors know what emissions costs to expect?

Turkenburg: An open market for carbon on its own might create too much uncertainty for investors. The initial idea of choosing the cheapest projects via a trading system might have helped, but most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked already. To create a sound investment environment, a globally agreed tax level would be more effective.


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A pilot CO2 capture facility set up by E.ON and Siemens at E.ON’s Staudinger plant, Germany Source: Siemens

PEi: A recent report by the Global CCS Institute found that private sector capital providers were ready to invest in the global deployment of CCS. How important is this for the commercial development of CCS?

Turkenburg: If this is true, I very much welcome the opportunity for speeding up CCS demonstrations and deployment. It may mean that the private sector sees the need for CCS and is convinced of its crucial importance in greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

PEi: The public in general remains wary of CCS. What do the CCS community and the electric power sector need to do to change this attitude?

Turkenburg: Providing honest information and having open discussions of the issues are needed to make a proper judgement of the pros and cons. My Copernicus Institute here in Utrecht has developed a one-page map that clearly shows the issues at stake and their interrelationships. If people want to continue to enjoy all the comforts that energy use offers them, they have to be aware of the consequences for the environment.

PEi: In your opinion, what is the future for coal fired power generation without commercial deployment of CCS?

Turkenburg: It is not only the future of coal fired plants, but also gas fired plants. Although the specific CO2 emissions of natural gas fuelled plants are lower than those of coal fired plants, capturing CO2 from gas fuelled plants is imperative if we have to limit carbon emissions to the agreed level.

PEi: Are governments providing sufficient support for research into CCS and its alternatives?

Turkenburg: My main message is that governments should support large-scale demonstration projects of a number of techniques for CCS. For coal fired installations, integrated gasification combined cycles are a first priority, while for gas fired installations post-combustion capture looks to be the most economic option.

If Western governments don’t participate quickly, China will again take the lead as a technology developer. For the environment, it does not matter who takes the lead. But more action is definitively needed. Otherwise we will never reach the targets for reducing carbon emissions in time.

Professor Wim Turkenburg has authored/co-authored articles and publications on topics including renewable energy, energy system analysis, energy technology assessment, energy policies and climate change. He is participating in the opening mega session ‘Low Carbon Electricity ” Policy vs. Reality Part I’ at POWER-GEN Europe conference on Tuesday, 7 June, at Fiera Milano, Milan, Italy, 7″9 June 2011.à‚ 

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