Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Carbon Capture and Storage Myths

Coal is our cheapest and most abundant source of fossil-fuel energy. We have enough to keep the world powered for hundreds of years. The trouble is, carbon emissions from burning it all would make the planet uninhabitable long before this. Is there a way to get the energy without the emissions? Yes say coal technologists. Capture the carbon dioxide produced when coal burns and bury it underground, back where the coal came from.

Most of the CCS technology to do this is proven, and there are enough places underground to store the CO2 and keep it secure for thousands of years. That at least is the pitch for carbon capture and storage. If it lives up to the claims, the vast coal reserves in the US, China, India and elsewhere could fuel the post-industrial era just as European coal fuelled the industrial revolution two centuries ago. Forget renewables, coal can be a zero-carbon energy source too. So what are we waiting for?

Unfortunately the picture isnt so rosy.

Some Carbon Capture and Storage Myths:
#1: CCS cannot deliver in time to avoid dangerous climate change. The earliest possibility for deployment of CCS on a large commercial scale is not expected before 2030. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not expect CCS to be commercially viable until at least 2050. Nor does Oil-giant Shell who "doesn't foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050."

#2: CCS wastes energy. The technology uses between 10% and 40% of the energy produced by a power station. Wide scale adoption of CCS is expected to erase the efficiency gains of the last 50 years and increase energy consumption by one-third.

#3: CCS is expensive. CCS could lead to the doubling of plant costs, and an electricity price increase of 21-91%. The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently pulled out of the only "clean coal" pilot project with CCS technology in the US due to massive budget increases from initial estimate of $800 million to $1.8 billion.

#4: "Capture Ready" coal plants are pure greenwash. CCS is being used as an excuse by power companies and utilities to push ahead with plans to build new coal-fired power plants, branding them as "capture ready." Promises to retrofit are unlikely to be kept. Retrofits are very expensive and can carry such high efficiency losses that the plants become uneconomical.

#5: Storing CO2 underground can have unintended consequences. The world has no experience in the long-term storage of anything, let alone CO2. A 2006 United State Geological Survey (USGS) field experiment showed there is every chance that carbon dioxide will behave in ways that are totally unexpected. The researchers were surprised when the buried CO2 dissolved large amounts of the surrounding minerals responsible for keeping it contained.
For an in-depth look at Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), check out "False Hope: Why Carbon capture and storage won't save the climate," recently released by Greenpeace International.

Hattip coal is dirty


Anonymous said...

The challenge is to test CCS at a pilot and commercial scale as quickly as possible. If it does not work then the alternative is most likely going to be adaptation. Renewables face the challenge of scaling up and aside from hydro are unsuitable for baseload power.

Adrian Windisch said...

There may not be time for a new technology like this, we need to act fast on climate change.

Renewables work very well in other countries, its just here we are years behind. No need to scale up wind or solar power in Spain.

'The UK has probably the best overall renewable energy potential of any country in the European Union (EU) – conservative estimates indicate that up to 67% of the country's electricity supply could in theory be renewable by 2050 (see table 1). And yet at present the nation trails behind almost every other EU country in the renewables league tables and in terms of targets for the future.'