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Carbon Capture And Storage: Solution or Boondoggle? – The Pros And Cons

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Editor’s Note: Following is a short segment provided by FORA.tv from a program of The World Bank’s Praxis Discussion series on the role of energy in international development. In the full program, experts discuss the best policies for implementing renewable energy systems, and explore how a clean, reliable source of energy can do more than just light a home.

The video segment below focuses on the viability of Carbon Capture and Storage. Following the video is an article from GlobalWarmingisReal contributor Angelique van Engelen discussing the current state of CCS technology and development, and the pros and cons of relying on CCS as a solution to the twin challenges of energy and climate.

Carbon Capture and Storage Pros and Cons: The Challenges

Carbon capture and storage pros and cons

Washington Times journalist Amanda DeBard recently wrote an alarming article warning that the new US government is potentially wasting lots of money on projects to capture carbon from coal fired power plants.

The paper suggests there’s no proof that the new technology and the changes to the fuel industry will make even the slightest difference in the time frame envisaged. DeBard casts serious doubts on the viability of the US government’s $3.4 billion investment in carbon capturing and storage (CCS) technology.

Expensive, small-scale pilot projects are under way [to] capture carbon dioxide before it is released into the air from coal-burning power plants. But these prototypes have not been proved at levels that would make even a dent in the U.S. appetite for fossil fuels, casting doubt on the viability of the president’s plans. Still, the administration continues to promote policies that assume that these pilot programs will soon become large-scale projects and is seeking funds to bring that day closer,” the newspaper reports.

Experts are quoted saying that true costs are involved that no one nows as yet and that this is extremely risky.

It’s promoting a vision that no one knows what the true cost will be and [whether] these technologies will succeed on a large scale,” says Bryan K. Mignone as saying, a climate and energy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

So what to make of these allegations? Let’s focus on the carbon capture and storage part. Is CCS a waste of money that will never make it in time? In her article, DeBard  apparently made little effort to find out exactly what prototype plants are already out there and what the strengths and weaknesses of CCS really boil down to. The article focuses on the political side of things and in my view is totally disconnected with what’s going on on the ground.

Before asserting that there might be negative effects associated (the “true cost”) with carbon capture technology, DeBard needs to define the factors determining these “true costs”.

A few quick facts about CCS:

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that globally, over 200 power plants need CCS technology in the next twenty years (by 2030), in order to prevent temperature rises of over 3°C.  As we previously reported, research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that carbon sequestering can reduce human generated CO2 to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

Only four power plants and/or carbon storage projects utilize CCS as yet:

  1. Canada’s Weyburn-Midale CO2 Project is currently the world’s largest geologic carbon storage project, located in southeastern Saskatchewan and started in 2000.
  2. ExxonMobil/Statoil’s Sleipner plant in Norway is the world’s oldest project. It stores carbon injects carbon 1,000 meters below the seabed into a sandstone aquifer. It has been operational since 1995.
  3. The 30 megawatt pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe in Germany, opened last year. The trial plant is operated by Swedish utility Vattenfall and burns its fuel at 42 percent efficiency with a target to increase that to as high as 50-55 percent.
  4. Another Statoil project in the Snøhvit gas field, in the Barents Sea, stores 700,000 tonnes per year, equivalent to 330,000 cars with average CO2 emissions of 160g/km and annual driving distance of 15,000 kms.

The main problem preventing large scale CCS adoption by power plants is that the technology is very expensive and largely unproven. Lobbyists say that ultimately the costs will as a matter of course decrease as we get experience, but the lack of precedent is again a deterrent to true belief. All this leads to something of a “chicken or egg argument” in political and policy circles.

The costs of CCS arise mainly because the process of capturing the carbon and compressing it requires a lot of extra power. Engineers estimate that power plants require up to 25% more power when they are fitted with CCS. They also need considerably more facility space.

Using the carbon dioxide rather than compressing it in energy intensive ways and burying it underground makes a lot of environmental sense. It Carbon capture and storage pros and cons explainedalso circumvents the danger that the carbon might leak and make its way back into the atmosphere. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that risks are comparable to those associated with current hydrocarbon activity. CO2 could be trapped for millions of years, the IPCC believes, with retention rates of over 99% over 1000 years. Greenpeace objects, however, that if 1 percent of the carbon leaks, the next 100 years would see the evaporation of 63 percent of the stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  It also  highlights the dangers of the carbon permeating the storage shelter over time.

The US is spending $3.4 billion on the technology. The California Public Utilities Commission recently endorsed a feasibility study by South California Edison into building a utility-scale base-load power plant. The plan is to power the plant with hydrogen derived through gasification of petroleum coke, coal and possibly biomass.In the US, oil companies could be a big part of the CCS solution. They tend to use carbon dioxide for oil and gas exploration. For instance, Exxon Mobil’s La Barge, Wyoming facility is the world’s biggest CCS operation. Rather than storing the carbon, it transports the carbon dioxide 3,600 miles (5,800 kms) to gas and oil exploration sites.

Big Companys Using CCS Technology

The world’s biggest CCS enabled power plant, the Dakota Gasification Company plant in Beulah, North Dakota captures its CO2 for use in advanced oil field recovery in Weyburn Canada.The company produces methane from coal and has a track record of more than 30 years. Further plans are to use around 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 from Weyburn every year for oil recovery. Duke Energy is currently constructing a plant in Indiana based on coal-gasification that promises to reduce emissions by 75% compared to the conventional coal plant it replaces.

”It’s an example of one of the clean coal technologies favored by the Obama administration”, says Eugene Bukoveczky, a stock analyst at Forbes Investopedia. However, the construction costs were almost double the original estimates, at $2.35 billion. Bukoveczky believes that future federal carbon regulations are another major deterrent for the time being for companies to execute similar plans.

The European Union government in Brussels ordered all its member countries last year to invent their own rules for CCS within the next two years. Individual countries must select storage sites and come up with standards for monitoring, safety and finance structures.  At the moment, nine European countries ( Norway, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Hungary. Poland, Croatia and Denmark) are investing €81 million (about $105 million US) in building fifteen research laboratories for CO2 capture and storage.

A major weak point for CCS globally is that Kyoto does not recognize it. That means that poor countries wanting to submit CCS plans in order to participate in the carbon trading scheme can not do so.  However, some effort went underway last April to change this.

No matter what the risks are of future leakages and the costs involved in CCS, I believe that so long as it is possible to capture carbon from power plants running on coal, we should pursue the technology as best we can. Even if it means partial solutions are deployed. The only way to end the world’s worst pollution drama right now is to try to end it with all means available. There is no way that alternative energy such as wind or solar power is going to be adopted to such an extent that ordinary power plants will be closing down in the near future. Meanwhile, every day the smoke stacks emit carbon dioxide is one too many.

Business As Usual or Time for Change?

The interim measures at power plants themselves might be  simply non-existent, but already smaller inventors are producing a host of commercial applications for CO2 based products, ranging from cement to algae, to plastics. Even if we capture the carbon for transport at a later date, that justifies the start of CCS (with the storage part simply left out or turned into a commercial/financing opportunity).

The economic incentive for power plants to quit coal altogether is only strong if the economy thrives. Before the first half of 2008, the price of coal doubled due to massive international demand. Now that the economy is in the doldrums, there’s less of a reason to quit coal in the minds of the energy barons. Prices have returned to “normal levels” which reflect the “abundance of coal” myth.

In the future, coal prices might not only climb up again but analysts also expect coal to become more expensive as cap and trade laws or a carbon tax are passed.   So yes, the true cost of CCS is still an unknown variable. Nonetheless, that cost is dependent on something we’ve known for a while;  continuing with business-as-usual is a risk we certainly can’t afford.

Image credit: Vattenfall, courtesy flickr

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Comments

  1. Regarding Weyburn and Dakota Gasification, you have things backward. Weyburn is an oil field, not a power plant. Dakota produces the CO2 as a byproduct of its gas production process and sells it to the owners of the Weyburn oil field to increase output and efficiency

  2. Coal=engergy of which we have finite resource. It seems absurd that we are wasting resources to create a system that uses more engery to fix a questionable problem with a questionable solution.
    How about just focusing on making the power plants more efficient. 20% more efficiency means 20% less carbon, and 20% less fuel consumed.

    This issue is so politically charged, that people are not using their own common sense!
    Another solution, is conservation. We in America, take electricty for granted- just like our water and gasoline for our cars.. If we all just focused a little on understanding how and where our resources come from and stop listening to the politicians (from both parties), we might be a lot better off.

    Well I just increased my carbon footprint by being on this webpage, got to go!

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