Carbon Capture and Storage and the trilemma

25th Oct 2016

 

In 2015, the 195 countries represented at the Paris climate conference (COP21) reached a legally binding agreement on climate change- to limit global warming to below 2 °C. In order to achieve this, the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO²) released, or ‘carbon budget’ must be significantly reduced. A new review by the Sustainable Gas Institute (SGI) at Imperial College states that “as of 2011, the world had a carbon budget of roughly 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. This is the amount of CO2 that could be emitted whilst still having a two-thirds or greater chance of staying below 2°C. However, at our current global emission rates, this budget will be completely used up within the next thirty years.”

Meeting this global target is the defining challenge of our time, and will require swift and effective action. Many believe that simply locking away our fossil fuels will provide much of the reduction needed. The SGI report suggests that if the emissions from fossil fuels could be reduced- through carbon capture- the world would be able to unlock more of its fossil fuel reserves and still stay within target limits.

If we are serious about tackling climate change we must utilise all of the ‘tools’ and energy sources available to us. Carbon capture- the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO²)- is a valuable addition to the UK’s suite of technologies, as a means of allowing the UK to use flexible energy sources to meet  seasonal variations, dictated by the UK climate whilst supporting carbon reduction.

The idea behind carbon capture is relatively simple- capture the emissions. But the possibilities it provides are exciting as it is a technology that can be used in conjunction with our existing energy infrastructure. An emissions saving and green gas enabler ‘bolt on’ if you like.

The Energy and Utilities Alliance (EUA) believe that carbon capture is one of the most significant potential contributors to reducing carbon emissions whilst continuing to utilise the UK’s most valuable asset- the gas grid.

As a result of natural gas abundance, the UK has the world’s leading gas grid infrastructure in place, directly supplying the energy to heat 85 per cent of UK homes. It would be illogical not to use this existing infrastructure as part of the solution to the energy trilemma, a phrase that rightly suggests the difficulty in balancing the competing demands of affordability, reliability and sustainability.

A bit about carbon capture

There are three types of carbon capture that are currently being developed in the UK and around the world. Firstly we have post-combustion; this method separates CO² from the fossil fuel after it has been burned. These emissions are then transported via a network of pipes and stored inside the microscopic pores of rocks located deep underground.

Then we have pre-combustion, which is the removal of carbon before it is burned to leave clean burning hydrogen. The hydrogen produced can then be injected into the gas grid or compressed and stored for use in a fuel cell.

Completing the trio of technologies is oxy-fuel combustion which uses oxygen instead of air for the combustion process in order to obtain a rich CO² flue gas mainly composed of CO² and water, this can then be cleaned and compressed.

 

Pre combustion is particularly interesting because not only does it reduce the emissions of the fossil fuel, it also creates a further energy source- Hydrogen. Probably the most talked about green gas, It can be produced using carbon capture, electrolysis from excess wind power and can be transported through the existing grid. Only minor modifications would be required to appliances although Northern Gas Networks are trialling 100 per cent hydrogen through the grid in a feasibility study in Leeds.

Carbon capture in the UK

There are a number of innovative ideas being examined such as carbon capture and utilisation, converting the carbon dioxide gas into materials such as building aggregate. Each project and research study is intended to fully investigate what carbon capture could deliver to the UK energy industry. The two main projects (White Rose and Peterhead) were initiated in 2010 after the UK Government extended their CCS commercialisation competition programme funding to gas.

The White Rose project

A commercial scale oxy-fuelled power and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) demonstration project, being developed by Capture Power, in partnership with National Grid. The project set out to; evidence CCS technology at commercial scale, and demonstrate it as a competitive form of low carbon power generation, as well as an important technology in tackling climate change.

The Peterhead project

The Peterhead project, located in Aberdeenshire was proposed by Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and Shell and is a full-scale gas CCS project. It is estimated that The Peterhead CCS project could capture approximately ten million tonnes of CO² during the demonstration phase of ten years.

Global carbon capture

The Global CCS Institute report that there are currently 55 large-scale CCS projects worldwide at various stages, from ‘identify’ to ‘evaluate’. Nineteen of these projects are based in the US, followed by China (12 projects) and Europe (8 projects). The Institute report that the CCS projects currently in operation around the world have the capacity to capture up to 28 million tonnes of CO² per year (Mtpa). The potential is staggering.

Meanwhile- in the UK- CCS has stalled. The White Rose and Peterhead project suffered a catastrophic and unexpected blow in November 2015, when the Chancellor announced in his Autumn Statement, that the UK Government £1billion ring-fenced capital budget, for the Carbon Capture and Storage Competition was no longer available. Many hailed the decision as a missed opportunity for the UK. In fact the UK government’s own advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, agreed and said in October: “CCS is very important for reducing emissions across the economy and could almost halve the cost of meeting the 2050 target in the (UK’s) Climate Change Act.”

The future for both the White Rose and The Peterhead project is still unclear, but it is difficult to see how they can continue without crucial Government support.

Admittedly the decision was made during a particularly tough spending review, but some fear its long term implications may end up costing the UK tax payer more. Without concrete government support for CCS the UK could lose the opportunity for cost-effective decarbonisation.

A recent report from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) “Building the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Sector by 2030 – Scenarios and Actions” states that “a successful UK Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) sector could save tens of billions of pounds (something like 1% of GDP) from the annual costs of low carbon energy by the 2040s: a huge potential saving by any standards.”

Funding is essential if we are to get projects like this off the ground, but there may be another potential solution to help bridge the gap. The possible creation of a sovereign wealth fund from shale gas extraction has been around for some time now.  For those not familiar with the concept, the idea would be for the cash earned from the sale of extraction licences and taxation on revenue to be earmarked for projects that benefit future generations. CCS would be a worthy recipient of such funding, and at the same time, it will keep the environmental lobby happy too. Energy efficiency projects, tackling fuel poverty whilst keeping the lights on and being kind to the planet – not a bad aim if such a fund is created. The recent developments in North Yorkshire may just bring us one step closer.

Historically carbon capture has been seen through the prism of power generation but actually carbon capture, either storage or utilisation- through hydrogen extraction- offers an exciting approach to tackling emissions and generating low carbon fuels.

When it comes to meeting the UK’s future energy needs there is no silver bullet that EUA knows of that can solve the problem, just as there is no single technology or energy source that can. That is why EUA believes that investing in the research and development of our future technologies- such as carbon capture- is essential.