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A Limited But Important Medium Term Future for CCS

Adam Whitmore's picture

A specialist on energy economics and climate change policy, drawing on over 25 years’ experience of the energy sector. He is currently Head of Policy at a leading climate policy think tank. He...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Apr 30, 2018

CCS has not yet been implemented on a scale needed to make a substantial difference to climate change.  However it continues to look necessary for the longer term, with more projects necessary to get costs down.

A decade or so ago many people expected rapid development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as a major contributor to reducing global emissions.  I was one of them – at the time I was working on developing CCS projects.  However, the hoped-for growth has not yet happened on the scale needed to make a material difference to global emissions.

The chart below shows total quantities captured from large CCS projects, including 17 that are already operational and a further 5 under construction.  The quantity of emissions avoided are somewhat lower than the captured volumes shown here due to the CO2 created by the process itself.[i]

Between 2005 and 2020 capture will have grown by only around 25 million tonnes p.a..  This is only 0.07% of annual global CO2 emissions from energy and industry.  In contrast the increase in wind generation in 2017 alone reduced emissions by around 60 million tonnes[ii], so wind power reduce annual emission more from about 5 months’ growth than CCS will from 15 years’ growth – though it took wind power several decades to get to this scale.    

Chart 1: Growth of large CCS projects over time

Source: Analysis based on Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute database.[iii]

The picture gets even less promising looking at the types of projects that have been built.  The chart below shows the proportion of projects, measured by capture volume, in various categories.  The largest component by some distance is natural gas processing – removing the CO2 from natural gas before combustion – which accounts for over 60% of volumes.  This makes sense, as it is often a relatively low cost form of capture, and is often necessary to make  natural gas suitable for use.

However, it will clearly not be a major component of a low carbon energy system.  Much of the rest is chemicals production, including ethanol and fertiliser production.  These are helpful but inevitably small. There are just two moderate size power generation projects and two projects for hydrogen production, which is often considered important for decarbonising heat.

Furthermore, most of the projects separate out CO2 at relatively high concentrations or pressures.  This tends to be easier and cheaper than separating more dilute, lower pressure streams of CO2.  However it will not be typical of most applications if CCS is to become more widespread.

Chart 2:  Large CCS projects by type (including those under construction) 

Source: Analysis based on Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute database

This slow growth of CCS has been accompanied by at least one spectacular failure, the Kemper County power generation project, which was abandoned after expenditure of several billion dollars.  Neither the circumstances of the development or the technology used on that particular plant were typical.  For example, the Saskpower’s project at Boundary Dam and Petra Nova’s Texas project have both successfully installed post combustion capture at power plants, rather than the gasification technologies used at Kemper County.  Nevertheless, the Kemper project’s failure is likely to act as a further deterrent to wider deployment of CCS in power generation.

There have been several reasons for the slow deployment of CCS.  Costs per tonne abated have remained high for most projects compared with prevailing carbon prices.  These high unit costs have combined with the large scale of projects to make the total costs of projects correspondingly large, with a single project typically having a cost in the billions of dollars.  This has in turn made it difficult to secure from governments the amount of financial support necessary to get more early projects to happen. Meanwhile the costs of other low carbon technologies, notably renewables, have fallen, making CCS appear relatively less attractive, especially in the power sector.

The difficulties of establishing CCS have led many to propose carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) as a way forward.  The idea is that if captured CO2 can be a useful product, this will give it a value and so improve project economics.  Already 80% by volume of CCS is CCU as it includes use of the CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), with project economics supported by increased oil production.

Various other uses for CO2 have been suggested.  Construction materials are a leading candidate with a number of research projects and start-up ventures in this area.  These are potentially substantial markets.  However the markets for CO2 in construction materials, while large in absolute terms, are small relative to global CO2 emissions, and there will be tough competition from other low carbon materials.

For example, one study identified a market potential for CCU of less than two billion tonnes p.a. (excluding synthetic fuels) even on a highly optimistic scenario[iv], or around 5% of total CO2 emissions.  It is therefore difficult to be confident that CCU can make a substantial contribution to reducing global emissions, although it may play some role in getting more early carbon capture projects going, as it has done to date through EOR.

Despite their slow growth, CCS and CCU continue to look likely to have a necessary role in reducing some industrial emissions which are otherwise difficult to eliminate.  The development of CCS and CCU should be encouraged, including through higher carbon prices and dedicated support for early stage technological development.  As part of this it remains important that more projects CCS and CCU projects are built to achieve learning and cost reduction, and so support the beginnings of more rapid growth.  However in view of the lead times involved the scale of CCS looks likely to continue to be modest over the next couple of decades at least.

[i] CO2 will generally be produced in making the energy necessary to run the capture process, compression of the CO2 for transport, and the rest of the transport and storage process.  This CO2 will be either emitted, which reduces the net gain from capture, or captured, in which case it is part of the total.  In either case the net savings compared with what would have been emitted to the atmosphere with no CCS are lower than the total captured.

[ii] Wind generation increased by a little over 100 TWh between 2016 and 2017 (Source: Enerdata).  Assuming this displaced fossil capacity with an average emissions intensity of 0.6 t/MWh (roughly half each coal and gas) total avoided emissions would be 60 million tonnes.



Original Post

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 30, 2018

Adam, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, which stands to profit from the deception we can simply stick carbon back in the ground after we’re done using it, disingenuously employs capacity as a metric for measuring progress (maybe borrowing from the Renewables playbook).

In 2015 a global total of 1.2 million tons of CO2 was sucessfully sequestered geologically (not counting unverifiable Enhanced Oil Recovery), making their capacity chart above as useful as tracking Future Hopes & Dreams. I don’t know if there’s an SI unit to measure FH&D, or what the purpose would be of having one.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on May 1, 2018

CCS is a government bureaucrat pipe dream that grossly wastes taxpayer money in a futile attempt to make it appear something is being done about global warming.

It would be far more effective for the government not to play such games, I.e., do NOTHING.

Incentives directly to the people to increase THEIR energy efficiency would be far more effective, and far more economical, and have near-zero visual and environmental impact.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on May 1, 2018

Thanks for the interesting post.
Here in NL substantial part of the CO² produced at oil refineries, etc. at Rotterdam harbor is transported via pipelines to market gardeners in Westland who need it for their greenhouses to improve the grow of tomatoes, cucumbers, flowers, etc.
With improved thermal isolation of new greenhouses, burning natural gas*) does not produce enough CO². Especially not in summer.

I estimate that CCS will never really take off as it adds so much costs that the owners of CO² producing facilities will successfully look around for cheaper alternatives. Such as simply pay for more emission rights, etc.**)

Also because CCS will (continue to) develop a bad press at the public.
What is stored deep in the ground will come out again in the future. Especially since CO² is a gas. So it shifts the burden to our grand-/grand-children.
Not a decent way to handle things.

*) Despite replacing the natural gas boilers by gas engines which drive electricity generators. The waste heat of those engines is used to heat the green houses. The exhaust gas to increase CO² level in the green house. Such distributed CHP produce ~30% of Dutch electricity.

**) As more greenhouse heating will be replaced by low CO² emission methods, the CO² need for greenhouses will increase.
Low CO² emission methods such as:

– Heat pumps. Those become more economic with the increasing price of gas and decreasing price of electricity (thanks to wind & solar).

– Geo-thermal. Such as the project by a market gardener near my house. He now also heats greenhouses of some neighbors, the local swimming pool and plans to heat a new suburb.
Expansion of geothermal is troubled because remote sensing a few km deep into the earth is too primitive (hence those projects are still risky). But that may improve with technology progress (more computer power, better sensors, etc).

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 1, 2018

What on earth (or in it, in this case) are you talking about, Bas?

Expansion of geothermal is troubled because remote sensing a few km deep into the earth is too primitive (hence those projects are still risky). But that may improve with technology progress (more computer power, better sensors, etc).

“Geothermal” is used in two contexts these days, but neither has any dependence on remote sensing.

Context one is thermal buffering. It has to do with improving the efficiency of heat pumping by providing a heat source (for heating) or heat sink (for cooling) at a moderate temperature. I.e., the ground provides thermal mass. But you say “a few km deep into the earth”, so you can’t be referring to that.

The other context is power generation from geothermal resources. There’s conventional and non-conventional geothermal power. Conventional is associated with magma plumes that bring high temperatures from earth’s interior close enough to the earth’s surface to heat aquifer water to boiling. Those are the easiest resources to exploit, but there’s no need for remote sensing to locate them. They tend to advertise their presence. Subtle things like steaming hot springs or active volcanoes.

So you must be talking about non-conventional geothermal power. That does involve drilling to “a few km deep” into the earth, but what does remote sensing have to do with that? You can drill anywhere, and at two km, the rock will be hot enough for geothermal power generation. Granted, it’s nice to know what kind of formation you’ll be drilling into. A deep saline aquifer is strongly preferred — not so much because of the high pressure hot water, although that’s handy. But more because of the porous sedimentary rock that an aquifer implies. It means that you can drill paired brine extraction and re-injection wells, and tap heat from a large volume of porous rock. Otherwise, you’d be limited to tapping the relatively small amount of heat in the non-permeable rock just around the well bore.

Deep saline aquifers aren’t exactly scarce. All you need is a sedimentary basin extending to a depth of two km or more. Geologists have pretty good knowledge of where those are. They’re the same places that oil and gas might be found. Seismic mapping for oil E&D has long since mapped them out.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on May 2, 2018

Roger, the earth under NL is stable with a lot of clay layers, etc.*) So we have what you call “non-conventional”.

The remote sensing problem
Luckily remote sensing can determine the size of the aquifer 2-3km deep.
However, remote sensing should also determine:

– the quality of the water. We had a project near Kijkduin to use such system to heat a new suburb as it was above a large aquifer. It failed because the hot water coming up contained too much small clay particles.
A major investment lost.

– the speed of the water flow in the aquifer. With little water flow the whole surroundings of the pipes ending deep in the ground become colder and colder as conductivity delivers not enough heat to make the project economic.

*) Except under Groningen where we “enjoy” major gas bubbles (since the sixties) and were ill advised by Exxon Mobile and Shell (they get ~10% of the profit) that we could empty that high speed without problems (we supplied half Germany and Belgium).
So now we have small quakes there. Nobody died yet but houses need reinforcements, and people in the area no longer live happily as new quakes come unpredicted. It caused us to decide to end the gas extraction gradually ending all in 2030.

We are migrating now towards improved insulation, conventional heat pumps and energy neutral buildings.

Adam Whitmore's picture
Thank Adam for the Post!
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