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Capturing Carbon – the most challenging part of the Clean Energy Transition today.

image credit: Adapted by paul4innovating

The big four of the Energy Transition are achieving greater Electrification, building out Hydrogen, sustainable Bioenergy, and Carbon Capture. These are suggested as the main pillars to get us moving towards the Net Zero targets of eradicating the harmful emissions by the 2050 to 2070 range. We have a long way to go in time, commitment, and investments. I also feel in belief!

We are seemingly on the right pathway to shifting the source of energy away from fossil fuels into wind, solar, and hydro. Yet, the costs of moving from the power generations we have known, change our transmission and infrastructures to cope with the change in the fuel mixes is a massive undertaking.

The two “leaps of faith,” in my view, remain around achieving all the Green Hydrogen we need and being able to complete the Carbon Capture needed.

Hydrogen seems to be a rapidly growing pathway to take it from its existing position into one that can scale through the application of technology and cost reductions. Experts continue to provide convincing arguments. Money is pouring in, attempting to scale, and reduce costs are the focus. Hydrogen is ready to achieve its “rightful” position in a clean energy world, although that will take sustained effort over many years.

The massive one that does concern me is CCUS.

A vital technology need is Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage.

The fact is, today, more than three-quarters of the cumulative reductions in carbon emissions that would be needed to move the world onto a sustainable path would come from technologies that have not yet reached any maturity.

So, where do I start? I feel we have this magic wand. It is continuously being waved, offering us the magic of Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS). It is being suggested it is our bridge to salvation for achieving the Energy Transition by mid-century.

If CCUS is not delivered as a solution, then is the opposite true? That is the damnation of the Human race as we missed the opportunity to capture carbon. We end up finding it increasingly uncomfortable to live on this planet, as it will seemingly continue to show signs of warming to levels that make life ON earth difficult?

I find CCUS hard to see beyond the theory at present.

I honestly doubt it will work on the scale CCUS is needed or planned for within all of what I have read to date. I read in this latest IEA report In the transition to net-zero emissions, “the role of CCUS evolves and extends to almost all parts of the global energy system.”

The IEA released this past week, “A special report on Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage.” I have been keenly awaiting this to give me a greater level of confidence that CCUS is on a clear, sustainable pathway- reading much within this 170-page report leaves me still struggling; it is bearly past go in the global scheme of things.

The reality of the IEA’s position states, “reaching net-zero will be virtually impossible without CCUS.” So, where is the momentum it needs?

CCUS in technologies and infrastructure solutions needs to tackle four huge issues

  • CCUS needs to tackle in a very effective way all existing energy infrastructure where the solution suggested is by retrofitting to existing power and industrial plants that otherwise emit 600 billion tonnes of CO2 over the next five decades, presently indicated as 17 years’ worth of current annual emissions by this IEA report
  • CCUS must be part of the final solutions for some of the most challenging and severe emissions of today’s heavy industries. Today heavy industry accounts for 20% of global CO2 emissions. The IEA suggests CCUS is virtually the only technology solution available today for profound emissions reduction for cement production. To also appeal, CCUS needs to be commercially cost attractive for essential materials of iron and steel and chemical manufacturing in our present “consumption” world.
  • CCUS must be part of the solution for a cost-effective pathway for low-hydrogen production. The demands for alternative sources of clean energy that can shift transport, industry, and buildings away from fossil fuels need the “blue hydrogen” as a bridge before we can produce enough green Hydrogen through a PEM Electrolyzer that still is in evolution itself. The majority of low-carbon hydrogen production will be from water electrolysis using clean energy. This energy solution requires 3,300 gigawatts (GW) of electrolyzers, whereas we have only 0.2 GM today! Continuing to use fossil fuels and alternative electrolyzer solutions but capturing the CO2 to make the result equally a clean energy solution needs to be the intermediate step. It equally might be the preferred one in the long-term by industry if PEM Electrolyzers cannot scale and force the costs significantly down.
  • Lastly, the concept of removing Carbon directly from the atmosphere requires significant and radical technological solutions that are all in exploratory stages.

CCUS is then an absolute key pillar towards the path of net-zero emissions

Yet CCUS has not in any way lived up to its promise. It might be central in theory, but it is not being deployed or is today a recognized commercially viable or technology proven solution. Today CCUS investment accounts for 0.5% of global investments in clean energy and efficiency technologies, Yes 0.5% of the spend.

The appeal to retrofit existing fossil fuel-based power and industrial plants is not just a reality but a necessity. Who, of all the major energy companies or oil and gas majors, are putting significant investment efforts here? We seem to be totally fixated with the “green solutions?

Are we going to have a sensible debate on laying out the clean energy pathway and the different steps it will need to pass through over the next thirty to fifty years and is CCUS a critical part of that?

The urgent need is to raise the awareness of Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage.

Is it the “stealth solution” to perpetuate fossil fuels? If so, the Oil and Gas industry would be all over CCUS. Still, they are seemingly not. They feel trapped in the corner of being grouped into the ones that are the carbon emitters, increasingly the bad boys of the world, exploiting resources, degrading our planet. Well, if CCUS is so essential to the whole clean energy solutions, why are we not seeing this rush to invest in this (essential) energy solution heavily?

CCUS is really, really hard.

Firstly, we need to capture the Carbon that is being emitted all along the energy transition chain. So, we capture the carbon, and then what? The need is to convert it into something less harmful and useful to use, such as providing the feedstocks in synthetic fuel. We can also compress it from the source of capture to the point of storage, but that requires presently permanently storing it under the sea, in underground geological formations onshore. The cost of transporting it, keeping it, monitoring it, and generally managing something that offers limited commercial value is not an appealing business today. We would have to create the conditions to make it so.

Do we want Carbon permanently stored somewhere? Will that solve the future of this planet for us humans? I believe we need to focus on reducing our carbon emissions.

Long-term storage of carbon leaves me extremely uncomfortable; it reminds me of burying our waste or nuclear waste, and this carbon storage will come back and haunt us in generations to come. We need to reduce Carbon, not tuck it away.

I still am not sure what will raise up the confidence to invest in CCUS. If CCUS is one of the four pillars of the energy transition, then it seems on very shaky ground without a massive shift in our attention. CCUS needs to be seen as feasible, viable, attractive and offering sustaining solutions.

Today I would argue we are looking only at all things “green,” and if this absolute need is for CCUS continues, we cannot leave it on one side of the present solution set of Energy Transition? We need to address CCUS now in a sensible, thoughtful manner.

Something needs to give.

CCUS needs a robust solution set of technologies that can contribute to reducing emissions and the infrastructure in place to remove CO2 from our atmosphere. It requires a combined focus of Governments, Industry, and Social interests to come together and find a carbon-free pathway.

The IEA report makes me feel it is all very much to do, in any debate, investment, belief, and how it does fit within the overarching climate perspective.

Green solutions of wind, solar, and hydro cannot take the Energy Transition alone to a clean one without massive investments in capturing and utilizing Carbon.

We need to rethink all things in offering up carbon capture, utilization, and storage to prove it is real, viable, and a central pillar to the clean energy transition. Is it, I am still not convinced, even after reading so much of this recent IEA report?

Paul Hobcraft's picture

Thank Paul for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 25, 2020 3:57 pm GMT

If we had gotten the carbon capture technology off the ground 20 years ago, I think it'd be a much different conversation-- but the idea that we're still working on it worries me. Is it still the best place to put our limited time & resources? 

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 27, 2020 9:46 am GMT

Matt,

I really do wonder if CCUS does get the momentum it needs. As I said in my concluding remarks in this article "We need to rethink all things in offering up carbon capture, utilization, and storage to prove it is real, viable, and a central pillar to the clean energy transition. Is it, I am still not convinced, even after reading so much of this recent IEA report?"

I recall a McKinsey view "However, to reach CCUS’s potential, commercial-scale projects must become economically viable. In the short to medium term, CCUS could continue to struggle unless three important conditions are met: (1) capture costs fall, (2) regulatory frameworks provide incentives to account for CCUS costs, and (3) technology innovation makes CO2 a valuable feedstock for existing or new products"

The key is a real change in Regulation in tax credits or this fixing of a market price for carbon. The carbon price would need a global political momentum behind it.

I am sure there are some strong views on carbon pricing here within this community and beyond in all those involved in the energy supply. 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 27, 2020 5:38 pm GMT

CCUS is really, really hard.

Hmm, flying across the country is really, really hard -- if you don't have an airline ticket. But if you do, it's no a big deal.

The problems with CCUS are political and economic, not technical. Oh, there's plenty of technical R&D aimed at finding ways to extract CO2 from flue gases or from the atmosphere more cheaply than the ways that are currently available, but there's no specific cost threshold that will make the difference between economic feasibility and non-feasibility. CCUS is hard because there is no collective will to pay anything for it. We want it to pay for itself, or for somebody else to get stuck with the costs.

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