Carbon capture and storage (CCS), always around the corner

One odd thing about following climate change as a scientific, political, and ethical issue is the disparity between different sorts of relevant timelines. There is a rate at which scientific reports come out, a rate at which public opinion about climate change shifts, and a rate at which firms feel the need to change their public images. There are also much slower shifts – slower primarily because they are costly and require massive physical changes to energy systems.

Back in 2008, in a presentation at Cambridge University, the UK Environment Secretary Ed Miliband expressed his view that carbon capture and storage (CCS) was just around the corner. He says that all of the necessary technologies have been tried successfully, and the next step is a demonstration facility. He goes on to quote the European Commission’s hope of: “every new power station in Europe being carbon capture and storage ready by 2010 and using carbon capture and storage by 2020.”

We’re still waiting for that demonstration plant. This is not to say that CCS has no contribution to make to fighting climate change. Indeed, paired with power plants burning biomass, it could remove CO2 from the air in a promising way. Rather, there has been a persistent notion that CCS is just around the corner. We need a demo plant, then we can somehow magically retrofit the world’s coal stations and solve our climate problems without shutting them down or abandoning coal as a source of energy.

I can see why that is appealing, even for those not beholden to coal-dependent utilities or coal mining interests. China has lots of coal, and it is scary to think what will happen if they burn it all. That fear can give people a powerful reason to hope that CCS will mop up the whole problem without much fuss.

In the near term, CCS seems to have more potential to delay action – keeping us clinging to the belief that some wonderful technology will save the day. Meanwhile, the window in which we can take action to avoid catastrophic climate change is shrinking, and the total costs of the transition are rising as the time we have left in which to complete it diminishes.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Carbon capture and storage (CCS), always around the corner”

  1. Is China the last hope for carbon capture technology?

    Remember carbon capture and storage? Five years ago, the idea of grabbing the carbon dioxide from coal and gas power plants and burying it deep underground was considered an essential technology for curbing the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

    But carbon capture hasn’t fared well in the years since. Since 2008, world governments committed at least $25 billion to fund large-scale demonstration projects, the Financial Times reports. And we have remarkably little to show for it so far.

    At the moment, there are only two coal power plants on the horizon that are capable of capturing and sequestering their carbon emissions: The Kemper County plant in Mississippi and the Boundary Dam project in Saskatchewan. Both are slated to open in 2014 and will pump the carbon they capture into nearby oil wells to flush out more crude.

    Beyond that? The landscape is thin. A recent report from the Global CCS Institute notes that the number of carbon-capture projects on the drawing board actually declined last year, from 75 to 65. The technology is still expensive — and governments are now shying away. (The FT notes that about $8 billion worth of that $25 billion in financing is being clawed back.)

  2. That makes slow progress all the more frustrating. In May MPs on the climate-change select committee complained that government dithering had led to a “lost decade” for CCS in Britain. Money is part of the problem—boffins say energy from the first CCS plants could cost £150-£200 per megawatt hour, four times the current wholesale price of power and more expensive even than offshore wind farms. European laws that oblige Britain to invest heavily in renewables are diverting resources away from CCS, says Judith Shapiro, an industry spokesperson.

  3. THIS year the world’s power stations, farms, cars and the like will generate the equivalent of nearly 37 billion tonnes of waste carbon dioxide. All of it will be dumped into the atmosphere, where it will trap infra-red radiation and warm the planet. Earth is already about 0.85°C warmer than last century’s average temperature. Thanks to the combined influence of greenhouse-gas emissions and El Niño, a heat-releasing oceanic phenomenon, 2016 looks set to be the warmest year on record, and by a long way.

    A paper just published in Science offers a possible solution. By burying CO2 in the right sort of rock, a team of alchemists led by Juerg Matter, a geologist at Southampton University, in Britain, was able to transmute it into stone. Specifically, the researchers turned it into carbonate minerals such as calcite and magnesite. Since these minerals are stable, the carbon they contain should stay locked away indefinitely.

    Dr Matter’s project, called CarbFix, is based in Iceland, a country well-endowed with both environmentalism and basalt. That last, a volcanic rock, is vital to the process, for it is full of elements which will readily react with carbon dioxide. Indeed, this is just what happens in nature. Over geological timescales (ie, millions of years) carbon dioxide is removed from the air by exactly this sort of weathering. Dr Matter’s scheme, which has been running since 2009, simply speeds things up.

    They collected 175 tonnes of it, mixed it with a mildly radioactive tracker chemical, dissolved the mixture in water and pumped it into a layer of basalt half a kilometre below the surface. They then kept an eye on what was happening via a series of monitoring wells. In the event, it took a bit less than two years for 95% of the injected CO2 to be mineralised.

  4. CCS is a technology that has repeatedly failed to live up to expectations. Fossil-fuel producers want to make it work because it could provide their products, such as natural gas, with a role in a post-carbon future. But the cost of capturing emissions and burying them—estimated at $50-100 per tonne in the power sector—is high, especially as emitting CO2 into the atmosphere carries few penalties. As the IEA notes, for every large-scale CCS operation started or operating since 2010, at least two have been cancelled.

  5. NRG mothballs carbon capture project at coal plant

    The power company NRG Energy built the world’s largest carbon-capture facility three years ago at its coal plant in Fort Bend County but mothballed the operation in May, as low crude prices thwarted the oil-production efforts of the project.

    The Petra Nova project used carbon capture technology to reduce carbon emissions at one unit of the W.A. Parish Generating Station south of Sugar Land by 90 percent, according to NRG’s website, the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road each day. The Parish plant has eight units — four powered by coal, four by natural gas.

    Halting the operation means the previously captured carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and increases worldwide temperatures, is again escaping into the atmosphere at the Parish generating station. The carbon-capture facility can be brought back online when economics improve, NRG spokeswoman Pat Hammond said. Meanwhile, the Parish units are equipped with emission controls and meet all federal and state environmental rules and regulations, NRG says.

  6. Australia’s Giant Carbon Capture Project Fails To Meet Key Targets

    Australia’s giant carbon capture project fails to meet key targets

    The world’s largest carbon capture and storage project has failed to meet a crucial target of capturing and burying an average of 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced from gas wells in Western Australia over five years.

    The energy giant Chevron agreed to the target with the West Australian government when developing its $54 billion Gorgon project to extract and export gas from fields off the WA coast.

  7. What went wrong? Learning from three decades of carbon capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS) pilot and demonstration projects

    The delivery of operational clean energy projects at scales is essential for addressing climate change. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCUS) is among the most important clean technology, however, most CCUS projects initiated in the past three decades have failed. This study statistically evaluates the reasons for this unfavourable outcome by estimating a hazard model for 263 CCUS projects undertaken between 1995 and 2018. The results indicate that larger plant sizes increase the risk of CCUS projects being terminated or put on hold; increasing capacity by 1 Mt CO2/y increases the risk of failure by nearly 50%. We also examined the impact of technology push and market pull policies and found that existing support mechanisms have not been sufficient in mitigating the risks associated with project upscaling. CCUS deployment at the gigaton scale depends on substantially reducing project risk while increasing expectations of financial returns. Gradual upscaling, increased policy support, particularly for demonstrations of the viability of CCUS, while also building a market through carbon pricing would help remedy the current imbalance between risk and return. Increasing the expected payoffs for CCUS so that hundreds of real projects are brought on-line will require the co-evolution of technology innovation, institutions, investment, and deployment strategy for CCUS technology.

  8. Shell’s Massive Carbon Capture Plant Is Emitting More Than It’s Capturing

    Academics call on Freeland to scrap carbon capture tax credit | CTV News

    Government clean-coal projects flopped, federal watchdog finds – CBS News

  9. Hence billboard three: “Capture all emissions”. In principle it is possible to scrub the CO2 out of a ccgt’s exhaust and stash it away—an approach called carbon capture and storage (ccs). Since the turn of the century ccs has been held up as a way in which coal and gas could go on being used to generate electricity without wrecking the climate, both by being retrofitted to existing plants and designed into new ones.

    The degree to which this has failed to happen is quite spectacular. The iea’s Net-Zero Emissions scenario calls for ccs in electricity-generating plants to be capturing 430m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2050. The only commercial power station in the world currently using the technology captures 1m tonnes a year. And it runs on coal. There is not a single operational ccgt fitted with ccs.

    There are many reasons for this. Some in the industry point to a stubborn unwillingness by greens to see any sort of fossil-fuel use as a helpful part of climate action. Eye-rolling can-you-blame-us greens complain that the industry is following a “make me chaste—but not yet” strategy worthy of St Augustine. It talks about ccs to provide an illusion of future viability while doing nothing to make that future real.

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