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


in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

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.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. October 23, 2013 at 10:35 am

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.)

. July 21, 2014 at 2:14 pm

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.

. July 15, 2016 at 8:06 pm

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.

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