Whatever happened to carbon capture?
Published: 12th May 2012 02:29:27
The process was patented back in the 1930s, and it is reckoned to be one of the most important technologies we have for tackling greenhouse gas emissions.
So you might well ask: "Whatever happened to carbon capture and storage (CCS)?"
The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts global energy demand increasing by at least one-third by 2035.
The majority of that increase will come from burning fossil fuels; and without capturing and storing some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that result, this implies a significant addition to global warming.
To meet the internationally agreed target of keeping the temperature rise since pre-industrial times below 2C (3.6F), the IEA calculates there should be about 1,500 full-scale CCS plants in operation by 2035.
Currently, there are just eight.
"I think we're a bit behind where we need to be," says Brad Page, CEO of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, with laconic Antipodean understatement.
"And that means we're going to need governments to step up and get supportive policies in place for clean energy generally and also for CCS."
If CCS got some of the same subsidies, I think you'd see a lot more projects”
I am speaking to Mr Page at a seminar in Bergen, Norway, attended by luminaries of the nascent industry who came to see the world's largest CCS research facility inaugurated at Mongstad just along the coast.
A theme running through many of their presentations is that political support for countering climate change has fallen since the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.
In Europe, the main mechanism designed to spur low-carbon generation is the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) and the price that puts on emitting carbon dioxide.
"That's very important, because if everyone is walking around thinking that emissions are cost-free, there's no initiative for doing anything about it," says Ola Borten Moe, Norway's Minister of Petroleum and Energy.
"So I think it's crucial that not only in Europe but elsewhere that companies get a clear signal from the market."
CCS makes electricity more expensive. Extra fuel needs to be burned to drive the process of capturing CO2 from the power station's flue gas, and to pump it down to its resting place in rock deep underground.
If the carbon price were high, companies would find it cheaper to run coal- and gas-fired power stations with CCS fitted than to pay for the CO2 emitted from conventional plants.
However, the European carbon price is now so low - about 7 euros ($9) per tonne - that the only signal it sends is "carry on emitting".
The price has fallen because of the recession and because European governments have lobbied against tightening caps on emissions. Tough caps deliver a high carbon price.
Australia's new carbon price will come in at $23 per tonne, and is likely to fall further - also too low to spur businesses to invest in CCS.
So as things stand, there is no sign that carbon pricing is going to drive an expansion in CCS.
If the carbon price was the only driver of change, most renewables would founder as well - as would nuclear, in all probability.
But in Europe and elsewhere, many governments support renewable energy with substantial subsidies, delivered in a number of forms.
As a result, installation of wind power grew across the world by 27% per year over the period 2005-10, and solar photovoltaic by an astonishing 56% annually.
But governments are not supporting CCS in the same way.
There is an irony here, because successive reports by international and national agencies suggest that electricity from coal- or gas-fired power stations fitted with CCS is probably going to be cheaper than offshore wind farms and solar panels - and in some cases, depending on assumptions about fuel prices, as cheap as onshore wind.
"You're looking at a 70-100% increase in the production cost of electricity from fitting CCS; but in terms of the cost of electricity delivered [to the customer] it goes up by say 30%," says Howard Herzog from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been researching the technology for more than a decade.
"Renewables probably get the most support from government in terms of production subsidies; if CCS got some of the same subsidies, I think you'd see a lot more projects."
Instead, government support for CCS tends to come in the form of one-off grants for construction.
The biggest was the $3bn pledged by President Barack Obama as part of the US economic stimulus package. But China, South Korea, Japan, Canada and the UK are also in various stages of investment.
A recent report from the UK Energy Research Council showed that the UK especially has abundant potential for storing CO2 under the seabed - potentially building a new business taking waste gas from more landlocked parts of Europe.
However, the falling carbon price has drastically curtailed European Commission plans to fund up to 12 projects across the continent. It is now likely to support just a handful.
Against this backdrop, you might ask why there are as many as eight large-scale CCS projects in the world.
The answers are that none are fitted on power stations, and that they all make money in other ways.
The oldest project is the Sleipner gas field off the Norwegian coast.
Norway's carbon tax means it is cheaper for the company involved, Statoil, to extract and bury the CO2 contained in the natural gas than vent it to the atmosphere.
Five of the other facilities pump the CO2 down into oil wells, increasing the pressure and enabling the operators to recover more oil - a benefit so significant that they are prepared to pay about $40 per tonne.
Five of the seven plants under construction will also use the captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
"If we can get the technology accelerated by EOR, that's wonderful," Bjorn-Erik Haugan, CEO of the Norwegian state CCS agency Gassnova, told delegates at the seminar.
"But we should not mistake this for combating climate change."
While governments wrestle with financial questions, engineers from academia and the corporate sector are exploring various ideas for making CCS more efficient and thus cheaper.
Most attention centres on the capture part of the process, which is the most energy-intensive.
In part, the idea is to refine the approach first recognised in the 1930s, which exploits the chemical affinity between carbon dioxide and nitrogen-based molecules such as ammonia or the closely-related amines.
But other capture technologies based on fine membranes are also in development.
Meanwhile, other completely different approaches involve burning coal in pure oxygen (oxyfuel), or turning it into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is then burned.
These allow for much easier extraction of CO2; but the extra processing still consumes more energy.
Because both of these approaches need totally new plant, they have received less attention than post-combustion capture technologies such as amines, which can be fitted onto the end of existing power stations.
Another more radical idea is called chemical looping. It involves taking oxygen to the fuel not as a gas, but bound to a metal such as iron or calcium, and should in principle make combustion more efficient.
How far any of these progress probably depends less on engineers than on the economic support packages that politicians can develop.
To some extent, it also depends on environmental groups and the public.
The UK's Green Party, for example, has little time for CCS which it regards as an unproven distraction from renewables and energy efficiency improvement; and in Germany, local peoples' concerns about adverse impacts of storing CO2 underground recently forced cancellation of the Jaenschwalde CO2 burial project.
But others point out that CCS is able to eliminate CO2 production from industries such as cement and steel, as well as electricity generation, again through absorbing it from waste gases.
A yet more radical vision sees using CCS on power stations burning biomass; and this is where the equation realy begins to turn around.
In this vision, crops absorb CO2 as they grow; but the CO2 released when they are burned is captured and buried. Electricity generation becomes a net absorber of CO2 rather than a net emitter.
Follow Richard on Twitter
At 20:00:34 in WorldSierra Leone's parliament has passed a new law making it a criminal offence to shelter Ebola patients.
At 19:50:43 in EntertainmentA novel inspired by the daily toil of a shepherdess and a biography of a Booker prize-winning author have scooped the UK's oldest literary awards.
At 19:39:33 in SportLeeds captain Kevin Sinfield paid tribute to Rhinos coach Brian McDermott as the "mastermind" of the club's first Challenge Cup win in 15 years.
At 19:10:23 in SportWelshman Bradley Dredge carded a third-round 66 to take a two-shot lead at 12-under-par in the Czech Masters.
At 19:04:10 in SportAled Sion Davies won his second gold of the IPC European Championships on the final day in Swansea.
At 19:03:16 in SportAntrim suffered a 4-28 to 1-10 hammering by Clare in Saturday's All-Ireland U21 hurling semi-final.
At 18:24:18 in SportSwansea City are reportedly set to sign Gambian-born striker Modou Barrow from Swedish second-tier club Ostersund.
At 18:14:07 in SportThe head of British Basketball has dismissed John Amaechi's criticism of the way the game is run in England, Scotland and Wales as "a cheap shot".
At 18:03:01 in HealthA British national living in Sierra Leone has tested positive for Ebola, the UK's Department of Health has said.
At 17:50:51 in SportPaddy McLaughlin headed in an 86th-minute equaliser to clinch a draw for Institute against Linfield at Drumahoe.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Whatever happened to carbon capture? [Online] (Updated 12th May 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1428104/Whatever-happened-to-carbon-capture [Accessed 23rd Aug 2014]
News In Other Categories
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
The "Yes" and "No" campaigns in the independence referendum have set out rival visions of the NHS in Scotland.
BT has warned millions of customers it is increasing its prices by up to 6.5% from December this year.
Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield paid tribute to Rhinos coach Brian McDermott as the "mastermind" of the club's first Challenge Cup win in 15 years.
A woman has been left in a critical condition in hospital after suffering a serious neck injury in a suspected assault.
A novel inspired by the daily toil of a shepherdess and a biography of a Booker prize-winning author have scooped the UK's oldest literary awards.