Environment

What happened to carbon capture?

Carbon capture and storage was supposed to slash climate changing CO2 emissions, but the green technology seems as far away as ever.
 \tA flexible CO2-tube at the mini coal power plant \'Schwarze Pumpe\' in Spremberg, Germany. The .../ Credits: Reuters

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It was to be Norway’s “Moon landing” said Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies fitted to the Mongstad oil refinery and gas power plant would cut CO2 emissions by up to 90%.

The gas would be captured, liquefied and stored deep underground in offshore wells. Norwegian know-how would demonstrate how to burn fossil fuels without causing climate change.

But in September 2013, Stoltenberg’s outgoing government pulled the plug, blaming high costs, low carbon prices and dwindling commercial interest.

Mongstad is just one casualty in the fledgling CCS sector, which has shrunk from 75 to 60 projects worldwide in recent years, according to the ‘Global Status of CCS: 2014’ report published by the Global CCS Institute.

Moreover, it is often projects designed to reduce carbon emissions, like Mongstad, which have been shelved.

By contrast, projects capturing CO2 primarily to pump it back into oil wells to maximise production – Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) – have continued: for instance the Coffeyville Gasification Plant in the US, which recovers CO2 from fertilizer production and pipes it to an oil field.

Why we need CCS

In a world where coal is gaining energy market share, energy experts believe CCS is essential to combating climate change.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) ranks CCS third behind energy efficiency and renewable energies as the most promising way to cut carbon emissions, ahead of nuclear power.

Norwegian NGO The Bellona Foundation calculates that widespread adoption could reduce CO2 emissions by 54% in the EU and 33% globally by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in a 2005 report that CCS could reduce power plant emissions by 80% to 90%.

“CCS is not an optional technology if we’re to address climate change,” says Gareth Lloyd of the CCS Institute. CCS also builds on mature technologies and existing pipeline infrastructure, says the Institute.

Why CCS is a bad idea


Greenpeace disagrees, arguing in a report titled ‘False Hope’ that CCS is commercially and technically unproven. Consequently, it will be too late to prevent dangerous climate change. Just 1% of fossil fuel power plants will be CCS-equipped by 2035, predicts the IEA.

CCS wastes energy and drives up electricity costs, argues Greenpeace, citing IPCC estimates that powering a CCS-equipped plant means burning 10% to 40% more fossil fuels to get the same amount of electricity.

Another issue is the sheer volume of compressed liquid CO2 that CCS would produce, requiring pipeline construction and geological exploration to find suitable storage.

Finally, there is the extra oil from EOR that would otherwise have stayed underground. In that sense, CCS is a Trojan Horse for fossil fuel producers and is being used to greenwash new coal and gas-fired power plants.

Policy support lacking

Not all green groups reject CCS. Bellona, WWF and Friends of the Earth believe it has a role to play but only if all new power stations are fitted with CCS from the start.

The main obstacle to CCS development is insufficient policy support. "Continually, governments just kick the can down the road in the UK and in Europe," Prof Stuart Haszeldine of research group Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage (SCCS) told the BBC.

Another culprit is the excessively low price of carbon. Utilities building CCS plants were supposed to be rewarded with excess carbon credits they could sell on the European carbon market. As the carbon price rose, installing CCS would become standard practice.

But the carbon price has collapsed. “There is no direct incentive for any commercial organisation to undertake CCS,” concludes a SCCS consultation to the European Commission.

Instead of the carbon market, SCCS recommends targeted taxation or a price increase on emissions from burning fossil fuels. Grants, preferential loans, investment tax credits, feed-in-tariffs, and other subsidies are also options to kick-start CCS.

Bellona recommends a variation on the Californian Emission Performance Standard (EPS), which limits power plant emissions to 500 grams of CO2 per kWh electricity produced. Modern coal power plants cannot match this, so they would have to install CCS.

Bellona argues that CCS must be mandatory for both coal and gas plants and so proposes an emission ceiling of 150 grams CO2 per kWh for new power plants.


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