Why we must learn to love carbon capture and storage

This is a guest post by Professor Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences

The small ugly duckling wanders around the Brussels farmyard. Surrounding the farmyard are tall white windmills spinning slowly in the breeze. On the roof of the farmhouse gleam purple-white solar panels. And a little further away sits the stainless steel work of a geothermal borehole.

You don’t have to look far beyond the farmyard, however, to see some intruders into this low carbon landscape: the tall slim flue from a 1600 MW coal power plant, and the chimney from a new gas plant.

Europe has progressed greatly on building renewable energy generation. However, as the International Energy Agency reminded us in April,  the continent is burning more coal than ever before, closely followed by a rising gas bubble of consumption.

The world is still addicted to carbon; the IEA Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index  tracks the global carbon used per barrel of oil equivalent energy supplied, and remains stubbornly unchanged since 1970 (at 2.37 t CO² or CO² equivalent).

co2-intensity

And on 9 May the global atmosphere reached 400 parts per million CO² at the iconic Mauna Loa Observatory. The last time CO² reached this level was around 3.5 million years ago in the mid-Pliocene, when the sea level was at least 10 metres higher than now, the planet was 3C warmer, and Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic was populated by giant camels.

This seems to be the way humanity is now headed. In 2012 the International Energy Agency calculated that existing power plants lock the world into carbon emissions sufficient to pass well beyond a 2C global rise of average temperature. The predicted consequences are poorly known, but clearly can include flooding of most of the world’s major cities, including those home to a quarter of the US population, and regular heat waves of 46C in central London.

We need to manage carbon on a massive scale
This trajectory requires management of carbon on an unprecedented scale if we wish to keep the climates and seasons that have supported our evolution during the past 100,000 years. There could be giant machines to capture carbon from the air, larger than the power plants that generated it. There may be schemes to enhance mineral weathering at the Earth’s surface, locking up CO² in a mineral lattice to form limestone rock. There may even be global agreements to place punitive taxes on carbon.

However, easiest of all could be to change that ugly duckling of the Brussels farmyard into a flock of beautiful swans: a global fleet of carbon capture and storage equipment fitted to the largest power plant and industries.

Renewables won’t directly reduce CO² at the speed required
Despite the fact that CCS could potentially cut global carbon emissions by one third before 2030, governments of the world remain indifferent. They prefer to focus subsidies on a diverse array of renewable electricity technologies that provide a few tens of per cent of electricity to national power grids, but do nothing to directly reduce CO² emissions at the speed required.

CCS is still treated as an optional nice-to-have, whereas national, and international, projections of future pathways towards decarbonisation of electricity consistently show that adding CCS to the mix reduces the costs of transition by 40 per cent. An analysis by Myles Allen and others shows that the budget for emitted carbon is finite. One trillion tonnes of carbon is all that can be burned if our climate is to stay within predictable limits. The world is expected to reach that limit in January 2043.

An energy policy built on four wheels is more stable than on two
Initially, Europe showed the way. The world’s first international carbon trading market was introduced, to price emissions from power plants. However the free allowances proved too generous, and the transferring of low-cost allowances from the present into the future depressed prices. In March 2013 the European carbon price fell below €3 per tonne, a level 10 times less than its expected value. This market of buyers and sellers is supposed to generate billions of euros as a funding pathway to build multiple CCS projects. It has failed to fund a single CCS project. The EU’s directorate on climate action remains sanguine: more renewables will be funded instead of CCS. There is nothing wrong with renewables, or efficiency improvements. But building a future energy policy vehicle is more stable and functional with three or four wheels, rather than two.

Meanwhile, both Canada and the US have, or are building, complete operating CCS power plant, though the motivations in North America are different. Many US oilfields still retain 70 per cent of their original discoveries. Injecting CO² by injection into the deep subsurface, supplied from power plant fitted with CCS, provides abundant supplies to strip out half that remaining oil.

The irony here is that carbon emitted from that additional oil is not accounted in the US system, so using CCS for oil recovery to may accelerate climate warming, not reduce it – unless legislation states otherwise, to enforce injection of extra CO². But the benefit will be that it forces rapid technology progress on CO2 capture.  The UK Cost Reduction Task Force, reporting last month, shows a clear pathway that CCS can follow to reduce costs of clean fossil-fuel power production to compete with onshore wind.

China has ‘got’ CCS. What about Europe?
In China, the 12th five-year plan for greenhouse gas control, issued in April, quite explicitly states that CCS programmes should be developed for thermal power, industry, and enhanced oil recovery. Similar national statements for new technology in the past led to pilot plants emerging within two years, and fully commercial plants being built within five years.

What then, should Europe do? Poland, Italy, Greece, and even Germany and the UK, have little option other than to continue to use fossil fuel as a mainstay of their energy supply. If Brussels fails to coordinate a unified fossil fuel response across the EU, then individual states, such as the UK, will take fragmented individual actions. This risks progressive destruction of the single market. The remedy is simple: treat CCS like renewables with a premium electricity purchase subsidy, clear and durable mandatory targets for CCS electricity to 2020 and 2030, political support for project developers and value chain manufacturers.

It is time for the ugly duckling to gain the love and attention it deserves.

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