Costly carbon capture

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is sometimes touted as a way to burn fossil fuels without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. While it is not entirely without promise, it certainly has issues, and it is not plausible that it could single-handedly address the problem of climate change.

One big problem with CCS is money – it costs a lot to separate CO2 from exhaust gases, compress or liquify the CO2, and then inject it underground. Cost issues recently scuppered a proposed CCS project involving Saskatchewan and Montana:

A proposed Saskatchewan-Montana carbon capture and storage project that Premier Brad Wall said nearly two years ago would “turn some heads internationally” quietly expired last fall.

The $270 million project was launched with great fanfare in a May 2009 legislature signing ceremony with Wall and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, with the Saskatchewan Party government pledging up to $50 million and looking for investment from the Canadian and United States governments.

But, Rob Norris, minister responsible for SaskPower, said Wednesday “those talks have been discontinued” because Ottawa turned down the province’s request for $100 million last year.

The federal decision was made after the United States government made clear it would not put in the $100 million US for the project requested by Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, said Norris.

That isn’t to say that CCS will never be an affordable option for climate change mitigation. Rather, it suggests that the idea that CCS will be able to automatically deal with the problem of greenhouse gas pollution is overly optimistic.

It is also worth noting that companies that want government subsidies to fund their CCS operations are basically saying that the general public should pay the cost of dealing with their pollution. It is probably sensible for the government to support basic research and development, but it seems unjust to finance the commercial operation of CCS-equipped facilities, should any ever be built.

CCS has other significant limitations as well. It isn’t guaranteed that the gases will stay underground, they could migrate up into aquifers or back into the atmosphere. CCS also cannot be applied to mobile sources of emissions (like vehicles) or diffuse sources of emissions (like in situ oil sands extraction). CCS also leaves us with the other non-climate problems associated with fossil fuels, like the toxins produced when they are burned or the awkward geopolitical situations they put countries into.

5 thoughts on “Costly carbon capture

  1. .

    Take the known reserves of fossil fuels, which are overwhelmingly coal: 1600 Gt of coal. Share them equally between six billion people, and burn them “sustainably.” What do we mean if we talk about using up a finite resource “sustainably”? Here’s the arbitrary definition I’ll use: the burn-rate is “sustainable” if the resources would last 1000 years. A ton of coal delivers 8000 kWh of chemical energy, so 1600 Gt of coal shared be- tween 6 billion people over 1000 years works out to a power of 6 kWh per day per person. A standard coal power station would turn this chemical power into electricity with an efficiency of about 37% – that means about 2.2 kWh(e) per day per person. If we care about the climate, however, then presumably we would not use a standard power station. Rather, we would go for “clean coal,” also known as “coal with carbon capture and storage” – an as-yet scarcely-implemented technology that sucks most of the carbon dioxide out of the chimney-flue gases and then shoves it down a hole in the ground. Cleaning up power station emissions in this way has a significant energy cost – it would reduce the delivered electricity by about 25%. So a “sustainable” use of known coal reserves would deliver only about 1.6 kWh(e) per day per person.

  2. .

    Longannet carbon capture project cancelled

    Last remaining project in government competition for CCS funding scrapped as partners fall out over funding

    A pioneering £1bn state-funded carbon capture and storage (CCS) project at the Longannet power station in Fife has been cancelled, as the government announced that “a decision has been made not to proceed with Longannet but to pursue other projects with the £1bn funding made available by the government.”

    Earlier this month, the Guardian revealed that Longannet, the only remaining project in the government’s competition for CCS funding was on the brink of collapse because Scottish Power and its partners, Shell and the National Grid, were concerned about its commercial viability without more public backing.

    David Cameron cast doubt on the future on the project during prime minister’s questions, when he said the scheme “isn’t working”. Tom Greatrex asked : “Given the importance of CCS both as a way of reducing emissions and as an exportable technology, can the PM confirm the Longannet scheme is going ahead?”

  3. .

    Carbon capture and storage
    A shiny new pipe dream
    Capturing the carbon dioxide from power stations is not hard. But it is expensive. A new project in Norway aims to make it cheaper

    AS Helene Boksle, one of Norway’s favourite singers, hit the high notes at the Mongstad oil refinery on May 7th, the wall behind her slid open. It revealed, to the prime minister and other dignitaries present, an enormous tangle of shiny metal pipes. These are part of the world’s largest and newest experimental facility for capturing carbon dioxide.

    Such capture is the first part of a three-stage process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that many people hope will help deal with the problem of man-made climate change. The other two are piping the captured gas towards a place underground where the rocks will trap it, and then actually trapping it there. If the world is to continue burning fossil fuels while avoiding the consequences, then it will need a lot of CCS. There is no other good way to keep the CO2 emitted by power stations, and also by processes such as iron- and cement-making, out of the atmosphere. To stop global warming of more than 2°C—a widely agreed safe limit—carbon-dioxide emissions must be halved by 2050. According to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental body that monitors these matters, CCS would be the cheapest way to manage about a fifth of that reduction.

    To do this, the agency reckons, requires the building of 100 capture facilities by 2020 and 3,000 by 2050. Which is a problem, because at the moment there are only eight, none of which is attached to a power station. Another 28, mostly in North America, are under construction or planned. But some are likely to be cancelled—as happened on May 1st to a project in Alberta. CCS is thus having difficulty reaching escape velocity.

  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.

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