Global learning is needed to save carbon capture and storage from being abandoned

January 11, 2016
Credit: Alfred Palmer/Wikipedia

Carbon capture and storage, which is considered by many experts as the only realistic way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in an affordable way, has fallen out of favour with private and public sector funders. Corporations and governments worldwide, including most recently the UK, are abandoning the same technology they championed just a few years ago.

In a commentary published today (11 January) in the inaugural issue of the journal Nature Energy, a University of Cambridge researcher argues that now is not the time for governments to drop and storage (CCS). Like many new technologies, it is only possible to learn what works and what doesn't by building and testing demonstration projects at scale, and that by giving up on CCS instead of working together to develop a global 'portfolio' of projects, countries are turning their backs on a key part of a low-carbon future.

CCS works by separating the carbon dioxide emitted by coal and , transporting it and then storing it underground so that the CO2 cannot escape into the atmosphere. Critically, CCS can also be used in industrial processes, such as chemical, steel or cement plants, and is often the only feasible way of reducing emissions at these facilities. While renewable forms of energy, such as solar or wind, are important to reducing emissions, until there are dramatic advances in battery technology, CCS will be essential to deliver flexible power and to build green industrial clusters.

"If we're serious about meeting aggressive national or global emissions targets, the only way to do it affordably is with CCS," said Dr David Reiner of Cambridge Judge Business School, the paper's author. "But since 2008, we've seen a decline in interest in CCS, which has essentially been in lock step with our declining interest in doing anything serious about ."

Just days before last year's UN climate summit in Paris, the UK government cancelled a four-year, £1 billion competition to support large-scale CCS demonstration projects. And since the financial crisis of 2008, projects in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and elsewhere have been cancelled, although the first few large-scale integrated projects have recently begun operation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that without CCS, the costs associated with slowing global warming will double.

According to Reiner, there are several reasons that CCS seems to have fallen out of favour with both private and public sector funders. The first is cost - a single CCS demonstration plant costs in the range of $1 billion. Unlike solar or wind, which can be demonstrated at a much smaller scale, CCS can only be demonstrated at a large scale, driven by the size of commercial-scale power plants and the need to characterise the geological formations which will store the CO2.

"Scaling up any new technology is difficult, but it's that much harder if you're working in billion-dollar chunks," said Reiner. "At 10 or even 100 million dollars, you will be able to find ways to fund the research & development. But being really serious about demonstrating CCS and making it work means allocating very large sums at a time when national budgets are still under stress after the global financial crisis."

Another reason is commercial pressures and timescales. "The nature of demonstration is that you work out the kinks - you find out what works and what doesn't, and you learn from it," said Reiner. "It's what's done in science or in research and development all the time: you expect that nine of ten ideas won't work, that nine of ten oil wells you drill won't turn up anything, that nine of ten new drug candidates will fail. Whereas firms can make ample returns on a major oil discovery or a blockbuster drug to make up for the many failures along the way, that is clearly not the case for CCS, so the answer is almost certainly government funding or mandates.

"The scale of CCS and the fact that it's at the demonstration rather than the research and development phase also means that you don't get to play around with the technology as such - you're essentially at the stage where, to use a gambling analogy, you're putting all your money on red 32 or black 29. And when a certain approach turns out to be more expensive than expected, it's easy for nay-sayers to dismiss the whole technology, rather than to consider how to learn from that failure and move forward."

There is also the issue that before 2008 countries thought they would each be developing their own portfolios of projects and so they focused inward, rather than working together to develop a global portfolio of large-scale CCS demonstrations. In the rush to fund CCS projects between 2005 and 2009, countries assembled projects independently, and now only a handful of those projects remain.

According to Reiner, building a global portfolio, where countries learn from each other's projects, will assist in learning through diversity and replication, 'de-risking' the technology and determining whether it ever emerges from the demonstration phase.

"If we're not going to get CCS to happen, it's hard to imagine getting the dramatic emissions reductions we need to limit global warming to two degrees - or three degrees, for that matter," he said. "However, there's an inherent tension in developing CCS - it is not a single technology, but a whole suite and if there are six CCS paths we can go down, it's almost impossible to know sitting where we are now which is the right path. Somewhat ironically, we have to be willing to invest in these high-cost gambles or we will never be able to deliver an affordable, low-carbon energy system."

Explore further: Carbon Capture: key green technology shackled by costs

More information: David M. Reiner. Learning through a portfolio of carbon capture and storage demonstration projects, Nature Energy (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nenergy.2015.11

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2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 11, 2016
One major reason why new technologies like CCS, or fusion power, or energy storage, new nuclear etc. don't get public attention is in the disrepancy in what the public and the politicians think is going on, and what is actually going on.

Take for example, Germany. The green lobby is now celebrating over 30% share of renewable power - as an achievement of the Energiewende that's been going on for the past 15 years. However, the actual energy demand in Germany is split roughly 50-50 between heating and electricity, and a further 11% of the demand is in the transportation sector. That means the 30% of renewables on paper is actually ~14% in reality. And then, of the renewables in question, approximately half is produced by hydroelectric power, biomass, waste incineration, etc. sources that were either already present or were not subsidized. In other words, not where all the money went.

So the public thinks all the money bought them 30% but what they really got was 7%
3 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2016
That perspective error caused by politicized and misleading reporting of the issue in the public media creates the illusion that we're already well on our way solving the ultimate problem of phasing out fossil fuels - after all, when you see 30% you think "just 30 more years and we'll be at 90%".

But that isn't what's going on at all. In reality we've barely just started and we're dangerously behind in progress.

5 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2016
There is a newly built CCS coal fired power plant in Saskatewan, Canada with the CO2 being stored in an depleted oil well. A decent temporary step forward. In the town of Squamish BC, Canada a Carbon Extraction plant has been built that extracts CO2 directly from the air. The carbon captured in this process is converted to usable products like CO for use directly in many chemical and industrial process to create new products. I believe the entire world should be obligated to install as many of these devices as we can to pull down the CO2 levels in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Just pulling it from the smoke stacks of coal power plants does NOT bring down the CO2 levels, just helps stabalize it. We're in for a long and arduous ride unless we actively draw down the CO2 levels not just stay the course with CCS.
2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 11, 2016
But isn't the Canadian CCS plant using the CO2 for Secondary Recovery of oil, producing more greenhouse gases?
Lex Talonis
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2016
It's actually stupid idea - the sequestation of carbon.

Need to mine the air and the ocean, and turn it into building products and useful materials.
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2016
Nature already has an efficient system for performing what some are demanding we do artificially and it doesn't put the carbon in arbitrary places. Slowing down emissions (which we are already working toward) and allowing nature time to catch up is the best answer.
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2016
Nature already has an imaginary efficient system for performing what some are demanding we do artificially and it doesn't put the carbon in arbitrary places, because it is made of magic and denialist rainbows.

There. I fixed that for you. You're welcome.

Present PEER REVIEWED EVIDENCE, not extrications from your posterior.
5 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2016
and we're dangerously behind in progress.
So what do you want Eikka? I would certainly support a faster transition to a no carbon energy system (including nukes). The problem is surely not that the current progress is being over presented to the public - so they think we are further on than we are. I live in an oil state (Oklahoma) - and once again - the politicians are shitting their pants - cuz oil prices are low - and state coffers are drained - and it is all boogey man Obama's fault for not supporting the oil industry. Look at Hensley's comment above
Nature already has an efficient system for performing what some are demanding we do artificially
or antigoracle - constantly calling everyone a chicken little. It seems to me that those of us calling for a reasonable response to the warnings of the science community are just being drowned out by the combination of deniers, and morons (often the same thing).
1 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2016
"A decent temporary step forward. In the town of Squamish BC, Canada a Carbon Extraction plant has been built that extracts CO2 directly from the air."

I dare you, show how this plant is not carbon positive!

This could be the poster child for everything that is wrong with the climate change religion.
3.3 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2016
Dare? You're the one making the challenge. Show how it is carbon positive.
1 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2016
"Dare? You're the one making the challenge. Show how it is carbon positive."

You know what Gkam, I don't really need to. Let the people who support carbon sequestration at any cost support their position.
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2016
I have heard of nobody saying that. You dreamed it up, to have point to argue.
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2016
Sequestration of atmospheric carbon is for all intents and purposes is sequestration at any cost! Prove to me that this can be accomplished without wasting valuable energy however it is produced and thus increasing CO2 emissions and I will remain silent.
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2016
No, thanks.

Whine away.
3 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2016
No, thanks.

Whine away."

Yea Gkam, I didn't think so.
2 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2016
It was your attempt at some kind of bait, and I was not interested in it, but would be in you looking it up for us,since it is YOUR point, after all.

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