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Can fossil fuels and renewables work together to deliver a sustainable energy future?

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Dawid Hanak's picture
Associate Professor in Energy and Process Engineering Cranfield University

I'm a climate warrior who believes that achieving our climate commitments requires immediate action. We can do this by deploying green energy technologies and building world-leading engineering...

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  • Nov 17, 2020


The power sector of 2050 is expected to rely primarily on renewable energy sources, with support from fossil fuel power generation with CO2 capture and storage (CCS), and nuclear power plants [1]. However, differences in operating patterns and interactions between these technologies will affect the operation of the electricity network [2]. CCS is expected to impose significant efficiency and economic penalties [3] and, therefore, cannot be perceived as an ultimate solution to climate change. Its integration to the fossil fuel power plant fleet will act, however, as a bridge to a clean, reliable and sustainable electricity supply. CCS is also essential for decarbonisation of carbon-incentive industries and direct air capture.

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Figure 1: Predicted demand and supply profile for the power sector in 2050 (Reproduced from National Energy Technology Laboratory [4]. Copyright © National Energy Technology Laboratory 2012)

In the scenarios assuming the share of renewable energy sources in the 2050 power sector larger than 50% and nuclear power plants operating at base load [5], the flexible fossil fuel power plants will be responsible for balancing electricity supply and demand (Figure 1). However, variable load operation of such systems retrofitted with CCS, not considering their energy storage capabilities, is expected to impose even higher efficiency and economic penalties when compared with that of base-load operation [6]. Nevertheless, utilising the inherent energy storage capabilities of CCS technologies can not only improve the system flexibility, but also improve the economic feasibility of CCS [7]. It needs to be highlighted that the flexibility of CCS has only been evaluated in relation to the flexibility of the fossil fuel power generation itself. The inherent energy storage capabilities of CCS have not yet been explored to store energy from renewable energy sources, thereby reducing the need for their curtailment. Importantly, the greatest challenge of renewable energy sources, a variability of electricity supply that would impose additional operating costs [8], can be mitigated by the deployment of energy storage that can decouple electricity supply and demand. These systems have the potential not only for improving the flexibility of the electricity system, but also for increasing the degree of energy utilisation, as the excess energy from renewable energy sources can be stored rather than wasted [9]. Importantly, energy storage could contribute towards CO2 emission reduction only for high penetration levels of renewable energy sources or other low-carbon power generation technologies, such as decarbonised fossil fuel power plants. Otherwise, energy storage could increase CO2 emissions, the extent of which depends on carbon prices and the share of unabated coal-based generation in the power sector [10].

CCS can act, at least, as a bridge from fossil fuel reliance to the clean electricity system. Among different options for energy storage, calcium looping and liquid oxygen storage have the potential to act as the direct links between renewable energy sources and fossil fuel power generation. Therefore, the power sector of the future needs to seek a synergy between renewable energy sources and low-carbon fossil fuel power generation that leads to both reduced curtailment of renewable energy sources and reduced economic penalties of CCS. This work aims to provide an overview of potential links between CCS and renewable energy sources using energy storage. It also aims to provide a perspective on the development of innovative hybrid systems for the low-carbon power sector that will ensure the security of energy supply with low environmental footprint and at an affordable cost of electricity. Benefits of such an approach are then presented in two case studies that propose to use liquid oxygen storage and sorbent storage linked with calcium looping and oxy-combustion CCS technologies. 

Links between energy storage and carbon capture

Among available energy storage technologies, such as mature pumped-hydro storage plants that account for 95% of global energy storage capacity [11], thermal, electrochemical and mechanical energy storage systems have gained significant attention recently, particularly in conjunction with concentrating solar power plants [9,12–14]. The recent literature indicates that there are technologies that can be successfully utilised for both energy storage and decarbonisation of fossil fuel power plants.

A thermochemical mechanism for thermal energy storage, in which heat is used to drive the endothermic chemical reaction (charging mode) and is released in the reverse reaction (discharging mode), is claimed to offer high energy densities [15], especially if one of the products in the regeneration stage is in the vapour phase [16]. Alternatively, heat can be stored in the form of sensible or latent heat via a change of the storage medium temperature or phase, respectively [12,15]. The former is the simplest and cheapest of all thermal energy storage mechanisms, yet the low thermal capacity of the available storage materials would require a large size of the storage equipment. The latter, on the other hand, offers higher storage density and isothermal nature of the storage process. The greatest challenges of phase change materials are degradation of their cycling performance and high cost [12,15]. As the thermochemical mechanism allows storing the energy for long periods of time, as long as the reactants are stored separately, and nearly complete recovery of the stored energy, it is regarded as a viable and effective route for long-term thermal energy storage and transport [15]. A calcium looping (CaL) process, which involves either hydration or carbonation of CaO, was first proposed for energy storage in the mid-1970s [16,17] and has been considered among the best candidates for energy storage [14,15], especially when linked with concentrating solar power plants [18]. Using the carbonation reaction offers nearly 50% higher theoretical thermal energy density (1222 kWh/m3) compared to the hydration reaction (833 kWh/m3). However, some technical challenges need to be resolved prior to the large-scale deployment of CaL for energy storage. These include the lack of electricity storage capability [19], loss of sorbent performance over time in continuous operation [16], and the requirement for temporary CO2 storage [15].

The utilisation of cryogenic liquid energy storage was proposed for electricity storage in the late-1970s [20] and has also been shown to be a feasible option for storage of electricity generated in renewable energy sources [9]. This technology is based on the liquefaction of air, and the potential separation of oxygen in the air separation unit, that requires electricity for air compression (charging mode). The product can then be stored at low temperature and low pressure in an insulated storage tank [21], which overcomes the dependence on the availability of proper geological formations that is the main drawback of compressed air energy storage [22]. The liquid product could then be pressurised, vaporised and expanded to atmospheric pressure, producing electricity on demand (discharging mode). In the case of energy storage via liquid oxygen storage, oxygen can be vaporised, and then utilised in the oxy-combustion process [23,24]. The key benefit of liquid air or oxygen energy storage is their high energy density of 172 kWh/m3 [25] and 313 kWh/m3 [26], respectively that compare favourably with compressed air energy storage characterised with an energy density of up to 6 kWh/m3 [27]. The only challenge of this technology is the requirement for proper insulation to ensure operation in a cryogenic region.

Currently, more than 38% of global electricity is generated in relatively low-cost and reliable coal-fired power generation systems, associated with more than 30% of the global CO2 emissions [28]. It has been estimated that retrofitting these systems with mature CO2 capture technologies, such as amine scrubbing that is regarded as the technology of choice for CO2 capture [29], would impose up to a 10%-point penalty on the power plant efficiency [3]. As a result, the cost of electricity from fossil fuel power generation with CCS is predicted to increase, and to be comparable to that from renewable energy sources [5]. The increase in the cost of electricity associated with CCS could be further reduced through optimisation of the mature CO2 separation technologies, such as oxy-combustion that can achieve an efficiency penalty of 5–11% points [30], and the development of novel CO2 capture technologies, such as CaL that have been shown to reduce the efficiency penalty to 5–9% points [31].

Although the inherent energy storage capability of CaL and potential implementation of liquid oxygen storage in oxy-combustion power plants make these processes an excellent choice for a direct link between the fossil fuel and renewable energy sources, there is a potential for other CO2 capture technologies, such as chemical looping combustion and mature amine scrubbing, to be linked with energy storage technologies for improved economic performance. Namely, energy storage can be deployed in chemical looping combustion via high-temperature oxygen carrier storage, if linked with a concentrating solar receiver [32], or, if this technology is utilised for hydrogen production [33], via the power-to-gas scheme to store energy in the form of synthetic natural gas [34]. Finally, amine scrubbing can benefit from energy storage via steam accumulators [35], phase change materials, such as molten salts, sensible heat storage solids [36], and solvent storage [37].

Potential links between CCS with energy storage and renewable energy sources could reduce the efficiency penalties associated with the integration of CO2 capture to fossil fuel power plants and, at the same time, increase the profitability of the entire system. Importantly, in scenarios with high penetration levels of renewable energy sources (30–40%), the integration cost is predicted to account for more than 50% of the generation cost [38]. As this cost is mainly associated with balancing the electricity supply and demand to make up for the intermittency of renewable energy sources and flexible operation of fossil fuel power plants, efficient energy storage technologies are required to handle the electricity network interactions. 

How would this work in practice?

The parallel development of CaL for both storage of energy in renewable energy sources and decarbonisation of fossil fuel power generation reveals that application of this process is a technically viable and efficient option in both cases. Similarly, the potential implementation of liquid oxygen energy storage into an air separation unit, which is a part of CaL and the oxy-combustion power plant, appears to be a technically feasible option [26,39]. To utilise the benefits of both the low-carbon fossil fuel power plant and energy storage, the system would operate in charging mode during off-peak periods, when electricity price is low, to produce and store active sorbent (CaL only) and/or liquid oxygen (CaL and oxy-combustion). During peak demand periods, when the electricity price is high, the parasitic load imposed by the CO2 capture systems, primarily coming from the power requirement for the air separation and CO2 compression unit (CaL and oxy-combustion), and heat requirement for sorbent regeneration (CaL only), would be reduced by discharging the energy stored (Figure 2). Such operation of the low-carbon fossil fuel power plant with energy storage would increase the net power output of the integrated system, leading to higher economic profit in this period.

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Figure 2: Representative operating principle of low-carbon fossil fuel power plant linked with energy storage

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Figure 3: Effect of a carbon tax on daily profit

As shown in Figure 3, the coal-fired power plant with CaL and energy storage via sorbent or liquid oxygen storage can become more profitable than the reference coal-fired power plant if the carbon tax exceeds 9.7 €/tCO2 and 8.3 €/tCO2, respectively, which is below the value of carbon tax reported in July 2019 (27–29 €/tCO2) [40].

The daily profit of the oxy-combustion coal-fired power plant with liquid oxygen energy storage would bring higher daily profit for a carbon tax higher than 29.2 €/tCO2. This higher value in the latter case is a result of higher average efficiency penalty associated with the oxy-combustion system (11.2% points) compared to the CaL system (8.7% points). This is caused by conservative assumptions regarding heat and work integration between the air separation and CO2 compression unit, and the steam cycle in the oxy-combustion system. Nevertheless, it can be stated that the reduction in the parasitic load of CO2 capture will bring a further increase in the daily profit.

Moreover, retrofits of CaL were shown to increase the net power output of the entire system by up to 50%, leading to higher revenue from electricity sales compared to the oxy-combustion system. Nevertheless, the implementation of liquid oxygen storage in both cases resulted in the entire process becoming more profitable than processes with no energy storage. Further increases in profit can be achieved via the determination of the optimal charging and discharging times. It also needs to be stressed that the addition of energy storage capability has been shown to have a low impact on the total capital cost. Namely, implementation of the sorbent storage system to CaL, which is characterised with a reference capital cost of 8 €/MWth, sensible [41], would increase the specific capital cost by 0.6 €/kWelh. Similarly, implementation of a liquid oxygen storage system, characterised with a reference capital cost of 320 €/m3 [23], would increase the specific capital cost of CaL and the oxy-combustion system by 2.3 €/kWelh and 1.7 €/kWelh, respectively. Such characteristics of these CO2 capture systems linked with the energy storage system make them competitive compared to other key energy storage technologies (Table 1).

Table 1: Comparison of considered inherent energy storage technologies with other key energy storage technologies [27,42]


Energy density
/ kWelh/m3

/ years

Specific capital cost
/ €/kWelh

Liquid oxygen storage




Solid sorbent storage




Pumped hydro storage








Compressed air storage




Li-ion batteries








Thermal energy storage




*Assumed same as for compressed air storage

**Assumed same as for thermal energy storage systems. Further work is required to assess their lifetime when considered simultaneously for CO2 capture and energy storage


Perspective for sustainable energy system

Flexible operation of the CO2 capture system linked with the energy storage system would allow maximising the profit from electricity production, mitigating economic penalties related to CO2 capture, and improving utilisation of the energy generated from renewable energy sources. Hence, commercial deployment of hybrid systems, which link renewable energy sources and fossil fuels with carbon capture via energy storage, would contribute toward decarbonisation of the energy sector, ensuring sustainable, reliable and affordable electricity. The links between CCS and energy storage are not well established yet. It is also not clear whether utilising the inherent energy storage capability of CO2 capture technologies will affect their lifetime and performance. Therefore, further work is required to demonstrate not only the value that such hybrid systems would add to the energy system, but their technical feasibility via experimental testing. It also needs to be highlighted that CCS is not only a bridge to low-carbon power generation system, as it will also be essential for decarbonisation of carbon-intensive industries, such as cement, steel, and lime, as well as its use in direct air capture. Therefore, both the power and industrial sectors will benefit from linking renewable energy sources and fossil fuels with carbon capture via energy storage, making these sectors environmentally friendly and economically attractive at the same time. 


This publication has been originally published by Springer: Hanak, D.P and Manovic V. (2020), Linking renewables and fossil fuels with carbon capture via energy storage for a sustainable energy future, Frontiers of Chemical Science and Engineering, 14, 453-459.

This work is based on research conducted within the “Redefining power generation from carbonaceous fuels with carbonate looping combustion and gasification technologies” project funded by UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC reference: EP/P034594/1). Data underlying this study can be accessed through the Cranfield University repository at 10.17862/cranfield.rd.8973440.

About the author

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Dr Dawid Hanak, a Senior Lecturer at Cranfield University and an Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, aspires to bring a step-change in fighting climate emergency by academic leadership in research and teaching, and coaching future energy leaders. Dawid’s transformational research was published in prestigious journals and awarded, among others, by the Engineer, the EPSRC, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Follow Dawid’s work on LinkedIn and read his academic blog.


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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 17, 2020

Important question when too often people like to jump to all or nothing-- and great evidence of the fact that energy really is about systems, interplay, and tapping into the right tools for the right jobs, not seeking out the magical clean energy silver bullet.

What do you think is the posture that governments should be taking to this question, given everything you noted and the idea that 100% net zero by 20XX is commonly discussed and debated at that level? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 17, 2020

"Can fossil fuels and renewables work together to deliver a sustainable energy future?"

In a word: "no."

If we were to end all fossil fuel combustion tomorrow, Dawid, so much heat is "baked in" to Earth's energy imbalance even reaching temperature equilibrium would take from centuries to millienia. A "sustainable energy future" is thus impossible on any reasonable time frame.

Those who believe carbon dioxide might be stuffed back underground fast enough to make a difference don't appreciate of the scale of the problem. Humans expel more than 37 billion tonnes of fossil CO2 into the air each year. So to even negate the CO2 we expel on a continuing basis would require scaling up current sequestration efforts by a factor of ~30,000, at an expense that is multiples of all global wealth combined ($360 trillion). Boutique, first-world solutions like air carbon capture, mineralization, and enhanced oil recovery emit even more carbon than they sequester.

But let's assume ending fossil fuel combustion is possible, so at least we might minimize the damage. Scalable "renewables" (excluding hydropower) provide 3.3% of our total energy, and due to intermittency will never provide enough to slow climate change - leaving nuclear energy as the only source which emits no carbon at all, but is dispatchable and available in the abundance necessary to end reliance on oil, coal, and gas.



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