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Everything you wanted to know about CCS (but were afraid to ask)

  • 06 Jul 2012, 16:00
  • Chris Peters

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) hit the headlines again this week as the world's first CCS leakage experiment , running off the coast of Scotland released its results. Meanwhile, you may have heard the news that plans for a new coal-fired power station with a test CCS system in Ayrshire has been abandoned .

But what is CCS? And why should you care?

What is CCS?

At its most basic, CCS does exactly what it says on the tin - technology to capture carbon emissions, and store them. In theory, this means carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere can be locked up somewhere else - without the climate-altering effects.

CCS is a geoengineering technique, and ultimately it has been suggested that carbon capture could be used to grab carbon dioxide directly out of the air - so-called 'direct capture'. At the moment air capture is just a distant dream at anything other than the very small (and very expensive) scale.

The form of CCS that's most familiar is related to fossil power stations. Installed on power plant, the idea is that the technology will capture the carbon emissions directly from the source. Or at least that's the plan.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 At 14.17.06

Source: Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage

Why aren't we doing this everywhere?

Unfortunately, at a commercial scale - large-scale deployment at a reasonable cost - CCS is still a long way off.

That said, there is a lot of research on the go. The new UK CCS research centre , funded by Research Councils UK and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), aims to "provide a national focal point for CCS research and development". At present there are only four commercial scale CCS projects in operation and none of these are on fuel burning power plant.

Norway recently opened the world's largest and most advanced laboratory for testing carbon capture technologies. And one Chinese CCS plant is using the captured carbon dioxide for fizzy pop.                        

Scottish CCS has produced a map tracking all CCS projects across the globe. It's clear there's a fair few pilots and planned projects out there, but not many operational project yet.

How expensive is it going to be?

Estimates for the cost of CCS are pretty varied, which is to be expected for a technology that isn't quite there yet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s special report on CCS suggests that capture will constitute the biggest cost. In total, CCS could add 50 - 100 per cent to coal energy costs and between 33 and 60 per cent extra for natural gas.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) suggests the increased cost of electricity from a new power plant due to CCS would be 21-91 per cent, and retrofitting older power plant would be even more expensive.

The US Department of Energy pulled the plug on plans for a CCS power plant in Illinois after the price tag rose to $1.8 billion.

Is storing carbon safe?

In the UK, the Natural Environment Research Council is funding an experiment in Scotland, led by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, investigating the potential impact of a breached carbon dioxide storage tank on the marine ecosystem.

So far, four and a half tonnes of carbon dioxide have been pumped into the seabed to simulate a gas leak and according to the experiment's co-ordinator, Dr Henrik Stahl, there could be both "winners and losers" - sea urchins seemed to react negatively while crabs were attracted or unaffected by the bubbles.

The very latest research, from a group of geophysicists at Stanford University, suggests that storing carbon underground could, in many areas, create a buildup of pressure large enough to break the reservoirs seals, releasing the stored carbon dioxide. These pressure buildups could also cause seismic activity, leading the author, Mark Zoback to wonder whether the cost and risk are really worth it.

So is there still some way to go?

Indeed, and it has been suggested that global confidence in CCS is waning, perhaps for lack of political will as well as regulation needed to pilot and roll out new technologies.

Yet while the diagnosis doesn't seem too good, CCS is a big part of many influential plans for how on Earth we might cut global emissions. The IEA (International Energy Agency) considers CCS an important part of any low cost greenhouse gas mitigation portfolio, and says without it, overall costs to reduce emissions to 2005 levels by 2050 would increase by 70 per cent. The IEA envisions 100 projects globally by 2020 and over 3000 projects by 2050.

Nick Otter, chief executive of the Global CCS Institute reckons there are a few bridges to cross but remains confident that the 2020 time frame the IEA outlines can still be achieved, although he warns:

"CCS is not the silver bullet, but it's a key element..."

Not everyone is optimistic. Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director for Greenpeace UK, reckons the UK is pinning too many hopes on CCS research making a breakthrough, pointing out that our "energy policy becomes dependent on a technology which hasn't been demonstrated yet - what's plan B?".

What is the UK doing about CCS?

In April this year, the UK government launched a £1 billion " CCS Commercialisation Programme" competition to build Europe's largest 'clean coal' power station. The competition closed earlier this week and according to a DECC spokesperson, it's seen " significant interest from industry".

This is government's second attempt at boosting CCS innovation. In 2007 the first competition was launched and then re-jigged in a move that disqualified some bidders. Scottish Power, the eventual winners, subsequently abandoned the project. Chief corporate officer Keith Anderson said "the bill would have been £1.5 billion" .

Alongside the commercialisation competition, the UK government is also funding CCS research and development to the tune of £125 million over four years. Although it's peanuts compared to the US government's $3.4 billion stimulus package for fossil fuel research and development, much of which will finance industrial CCS projects.

And what's the current UK legislation on CCS?

At present, new coal power plant must fit CCS, but gas power plant isn't covered by the same rules. But several commentators have said CCS has to apply to gas soon, including Environment Agency head Lord Smith and the Committee on Climate Change . Likewise, Tim Yeo, chair of the energy and climate change select committee said the energy bill must set a clear "twilight" on gas-fired power generation .

It seems there's not a great deal of agreement between what the government is planning to do with CCS, what others think should be done, and what is realistic in terms of the technology.

So is the carbon dioxide storage tank half full or half empty? Well, there aren't any - not on working power plant anyway.

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