Carbon capture: From backroomboffins to a household name

Dr John Topper, managing director of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Clean Coal Centre, is one of the world’s leading experts on the subject of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) mitigation from coal fired power plants and a keen proponent of carbon capture & storage. The Englishman, who has worked in the coal industry since 1975, is also the chairman of the Future Generation sub-committee of the Coal Forum, which has the ear of the UK government. Deputy Editor Tim Probert asks the questions.

PEi: Given your more than 30 years’ work in the domain of GHG, you must be delighted that carbon capture & storage (CCS) has come to the forefront of the power industry. But are you surprised that ‘carbon capture’ has become a common household phrase?


Dr John Topper, managing director of the IEA’s Clean Coal Centre
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Topper: When I was with British Coal (then still the National Coal Board) we first recognized that there was a potential problem with the most carbon intensive fuel way back in the late 1980s. We established the IEA GHG programme here at Stoke Orchard, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in 1991 with a dozen signatories from governments around the world.

We started with half a dozen people conducting a small programme of investigations into technical measures for mitigating carbon emissions from the use of coal. The phrase ‘carbon capture’ did not exist.

We started investigating flow sheets, costs, and comparing them with other options such as nuclear and renewables. This programme slowly started to attract attention until in 2000, after two major phases, we had 18 members instead of 12 and established as the world’s leading experts.

But it was not something that had surfaced in the political arena at all. We were seen as white-coated technicians, boffins doing obscure work. We were a backwater, but all of a sudden things started to change. Global warming moved way up the political agenda. By 2003 the Tony Blairs of the world started to announce how important it was to mitigate carbon emissions, and the UK announced how it wanted to be world leaders in CCS. That was five years ago.

PEi: Are you pleased with the progress of CCS development?

Topper: Progress is very slow. CCS demo projects are taking two years just to decide who will build it. Regulation development is progressing well, but here in 2008 we are only just starting the demo projects.

In the past seven years there has been a lot of lower level research at bench scale and pilot scale, which has led to a very high degree of confidence that the technologies will work, at least work well enough first time round.

But we are slow in getting them built and this is causing problems. On the one hand the power industry says we can make plants ‘capture ready’, which is mostly a question of leaving some space and a few other technical measures that don’t require much expense. It doesn’t make sense, however, to make it too complicated too soon because in five years you might want to use a different technology because research is moving forward.

What annoys me is when I hear various green groups saying ‘We support CCS but it has to be installed when it’s commercially ready’. Well, how do you get it commercially ready without learning by doing? Technology doesn’t develop like magic. It’s like motorcars; we’ve gone from the Model T Ford to the Ferrari. We are confident that with the chemical engineering that’s been done it will work. But we might be better at recovering solvents if we’re using post-combustion capture, and we may have an improved turbine if we’re using pre-combustion processes. All that will come with time and experience.

PEi: If you were a gambling man, which CCS technology would you back to ‘win out’ by 2020?

Topper: Both post-combustion capture or IGCC with capture could be running commercially very quickly. And we need both. Oxyfuel might take a little longer because it’s a newer technology but there is a place for that as well. I won’t say which is better, as there are different circumstances in different parts of the world with different coals and different needs, which suggests that all three will have a place.

Pulverized coal (PC) power plants will be around for long time, because there is a huge fleet of existing PC plants. If we are serious about CCS we will have to do something about that as well. I also believe that gasification will come forward in a big way. China has a huge need for fertilizers. Coal is their only feedstock, so gasification to produce hydrogen, which can be used as a pre-cursor not just for power but for chemicals and fertilizers holds a great deal of attraction.

Also, they have been building very efficient PC coal plants with supercritical technology and will do for the foreseeable future. If we get a global agreement on CO2 emissions, the Chinese may have to retrofit existing plants with post-combustion. The same applies to India and also the US, where there is a huge fleet of very inefficient coal plants.

PEi: PEi visited one of these supercritical power plant (PEi, March 2008) in China recently. It transpired that where FGD units are installed in China they are often turned off due to the loss of efficiency therein. Will the same occur with post-combustion CCS units?

Topper: It is well known that China has a serious problem with compliance. It’s not that the laws are bad, but rather the enforcement and compliance are poor. At the moment the penalties for non-compliance are insufficient and an operator may prefer to pay the fines. Regional communist parties can ignore the national law and they seem to do it with impunity. It is a situation that the Chinese have to tackle and change.


Schematic diagram of possible carbon capture and storage systems Source: Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (CO2CRC)
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PEi: This is part of a wider question on the loss of efficiency associated with CCS, which is as much as ten per cent for post-combustion. Can this be lowered to a more acceptable level?

Topper: At present the loss of efficiency for post-combustion is ten percentage points, for pre-combustion and IGCC it is more like eight per cent. These will come down significantly over time, but losing more than one percentage point is never acceptable to a power company, particularly if they are paying a lot for their fuel.

The reason that we have this huge loss of efficiency – almost a quarter in the most efficient plants – is that the capture process is based on chemical solvents. These tie in the CO2 chemically and you then have to break the bonds in order to recover the solvent for recycle. This means taking a lot of steam out from the turbine between the load pressure and intermediate pressure stages of the turbine à‚— a big hit.

However, there is research on other techniques that do not require the same solvents or if they do then you could get pre-separation into aqueous phases, or you could use solid materials for capture and regeneration with a recycling fluidized bed system to step around the problem.

It’s a hope based on experience, but I can see over 20, 30, 40 years we will have developed techniques that reduce efficiency to just two or three per cent, but there will always be some form of penalty. With gasification, it’s a physical absorption process not a chemical one, so the penalty is not so great. But with either processes there must be also be a compression of CO2 before dispatch to a pipeline. I can’t see a way around that.

PEi: OK, so you are confident the capture element of CCS is technically viable. What about the storage of CO2?

Topper: The transmission by pipeline is no different from pumping any other high-pressure fluid, there’s nothing insuperable about this. People shouldn’t get nervous about the piping of CO2. It’s significantly less dangerous than natural gas and no one seems concerned that there are gas pipelines all over the place.

The thing that has always concerned me about CCS is the storage, not because I don’t think we can do it à‚— we can, through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and aquifers à‚— but because of public perception. The feedback we are getting suggest that CCS is a worry. Comparisons with nuclear waste make me shudder. The industry needs to get the message that the longer the CO2 stays there the more stable it is.

There are some rock formations where the CO2, which in the presence of water can be acidic, so aquifers with the potential to damage the underlying rock structures must be avoided.

A number of schemes have been looking at how the CO2 is collected and pumped off to the storage sites and a series of local and national CO2 pipeline networks in areas of high CO2 production would be needed. Our investigations into pipeline materials have shown that there is nothing that cannot be done using normal technical capabilities, and small amounts could also be pumped using plastic pipes.

There’s not been a clear move yet to start thinking about establishing a national infrastructure in the UK. Companies like Schlumberger will need to have contracts with a number of sources to make CO2 pipelines viable, but I can’t see that happening right now, but it needs to. We expect that by 2025 all fossil fuel plants – coal and gas – must be fitted with CCS. That’s a lot of CO2. We know the principle sites, both the sources and the sinks, so it wouldn’t be impossible to start laying out an appropriate infrastructure.

And that’s just power stations; refineries, steel manufacturing, cement industries are almost certain to enter the game too.


The Esbjerg coal fired plant in Denmark – operated by DONG – is home to a carbon capture demonstration project
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PEi: Could EOR be used to prolong the life of dwindling North Sea oil supplies?

Topper: Statoil and BP, incidentally both members of the IEA GHG programme, are not overly enthusiastic because of the costs involved in piping out CO2 and then having to adapt platforms to store it. It can be done and will be done when the carbon price is right. Statoil has stored a million tonnes a year for the past 12/13 years, although not for EOR, but storing it in an intermediate level aquifer in the Utsira formation.

They understood that this could be turned into an international project to monitor data, as we have at the Weyburn CCS project in Canada, to monitor what happens to rock formations under the sea. These data are very encouraging.

PEi: There have been some concerns raised over potential leakage problems and liability of CCS projects. Are you concerned that these could jeopardize the implementation of CCS?

Topper: Studies suggest that most leakage will occur up the well that is being used to pump it down. If one per cent of the CO2 leaked it may have an effect on the carbon-pricing regime but it won’t be dangerous. I’m not suggesting that the carbon price allows for large-scale leakage, but to suggest 100 per cent retention over a long period of time is not practical.

Under the CCS Directive proposed by the EC, at some point when the operations have ceased and the site has been successfully closed down, the liability has to be passed to the state. But at what point is under debate, it will be different with different rock formations and operations.

PEi: There is an aspiration by the EC to at least start 10-12 demo projects in the EU, but there is no money as yet out aside for it. What more can be done?

Topper: The budget that the EU is operating was set many years ago and at that time there was no budget set for large-scale support of CCS demonstration projects. There are research projects but no pot to push the demo project forward. As we speak, there is a deep investigation into the coffers to see whether they can carve some bits and pieces out to kick-start the programme, but at the moment they are really relying on the intentions of individual member states to get it going.

If you have the political will among the EU leaders, it would be easy to acquire monies. The problem is that the member states are not harmonious in their support for CCS. Even the German government has said recently that we shouldn’t go too far down this road unless the rest of the world follows, while Eastern European nations heavily reliant on fossil fuels like Poland say that it will be enormously expensive for them to adapt. There are enormous inequalities across the EU that I’m afraid are going to influence the progress towards CCS demonstration. There may be some sort of Common Agricultural Policy style pot for CCS in the future but there isn’t one right now.

There are several demo projects in the EU but not in a structured fashion covering every type technology and every method of storage. We are not going to get 10-12 demos that way, perhaps four or five, and slowly. Of course, we have a gap until 2013 when the EU ETS moves into 100 per cent auctioning of allowances. In the ETS Directive, the EC is understandably suggesting that some of these permits be recycled, perhaps 20 per cent (equivalent to about €5bn) for promoting carbon mitigation projects, including CCS. However, the money is collected by individual nations’ exchequers and some will resist hypothecation of their revenues on principle, while some like Poland might say ‘over my dead body’.

The rapporteur is looking at increasing the percentage allocated for recycle, to 100 per cent for a short period of time. This is perhaps to set up a negotiating stance to push this forward. It will be interesting to see how the member states react.

The EC is taking CCS very seriously, and they understand that if they are to issue a CCS directive to reduce CO2 emissions then they have to back it up with funding.

PEi: You have said previously that it may take 15 years for CCS to be economically viable. Can CCS become just another piece of standard kit in a new coal fired power plant like FGD?

Topper: Of course it will be. Companies like GE know that IGCC is one of the technologies that can sell and they are setting up demos all over the place. GE know they have to take a natural gas turbine and turn it into a hydrogen turbine. For the next few years there will be mostly R+D but after that it must be deployed. The unit costs will then come down.

My crystal ball tells me is that post-2013 when there is 100 per cent auctioning of carbon allowances there will be a certain carbon price, but I don’t think that it will be sufficient to incentivize a second generation of CCS plants. But by the third generation the carbon price might be high enough, so we are looking for an interim arrangement to incentivize the building of CCS until such a time where it becomes the thing to do on a commercial basis anyway.

There are number of tools such as feed-in tariffs and capital allowances that are being examined very closely by the EC. Governments are aware of the potential problems and are preparing the mechanisms for helping it through the next ten years. Some point down the line it will be cheaper to utilize CCS than to buy the allowances. I am totally confident that it will work.

PEi: Are Greenpeace and other green groups winning the CCS public relations war?

Topper: The IEA says that we can’t do without CCS. It’s not the silver bullet but a big part of the mix. Both the executive director and the chief economist have gone as far to say that the willingness to adopt CCS is seen as the litmus test for tackling climate change and I would agree with that 100 per cent.

Greenpeace’s False Hope report, which was so critical about CCS, was repudiated immediately by WWF and others. Green groups are not unanimous in their attitudes towards CCS. Most green groups, although not Greenpeace, support it but they can’t get their heads around the need to go into an interim stage of building ‘capture ready’ plants while CCS is being adequately demonstrated. That 5-10 year gap is causing huge suspicion and an accusation that leaving a bit of space is just an excuse to build unabated coal fired plants.

I think governments will grant permissions for unabated coal plants and then set deadlines for when CCS has to be fitted, perhaps ten years from now. A lot depends on the degree of risk governments are willing to take.

If the UK government was to say ‘we want you to go away and build five coal fired power stations with CCS based on current technology, and we will underwrite the cost of the CCS and the risks associated with problems and failures,’ I daresay they would all do it now.

As an industry, there should be a serious PR campaign to counteract some of the falsehoods and skewed information out there. The generators themselves have done themselves some harm.

I think there has been deliberate policy in some European boardrooms to back-pedal on CCS. They would prefer to drive up efficiency to 50 per cent and then look at CCS. This has been recognized by the EC, who won’t listen to them anymore. Unfortunately there is a tradition in the power industry dating back to the 1960s, when FGD and catalytic conversion of NOx were coming in, that it has always had to dragged kicking and screaming and this looks the same.


Major CO2 injection projections propoesed and underway Source: CO2CRC
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PEi: So when will the industry be dragged into CCS?

Topper: Once we get a carbon price in the market then the balance will eventually be in favour of capture the CO2 rather than operating in unabated fashion.

Ultimately CCS has to be supported by the carbon price. We believe that from projections we need to get up to €50-60 ($73-87)/tonne CO2 in order to incentivize CCS. We are nowhere near that at the moment and from experience I can see that it will not get there in one quick hop.

This applies to both pre- and post-combustion plants. If you look at the final cost of electricity from IGCC and post-combustion, there is only ten per cent difference between the two.

Carbon capture may be expensive, but technically we are absolutely sure we can do it.

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