Carbon Capture and Storage as a Tool to Deliver Cleaner Fossil Energy
Satisfying the energy needs of a global population set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 presents a major climate change challenge. The world needs to find new ways to keep producing affordable power, but in a way which reduces our impact on the environment. With the need to flexibly manage power demand, combined with the fact that major economies across the world are heavily dependent on coal, gas and oil; market forces dictate that fossil fuels look set to stay. Because of this, the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies must play a vital role in allowing us to continue to use these rich energy sources.
Put simply, CCS works by capturing emissions from fossil fuel power plants and industrial facilities, transporting them by pipeline to carefully selected sites, where they are injected into deep onshore and offshore beds for permanent storage. CO2 storage is not dissimilar to stores of gas found in nature – before extraction, natural gas is in permanent storage, trapped underground for millions of years.CCS removes approximately 90% of CO2 emissions; transforming one of the world’s cheapest, most abundant sources of energy to one of the cleanest.
Most appealingly, CCS promises to deliver much needed security of supply; whilst keeping power affordable. Inclusion of CCS within a mix of low-carbon technologies is the lowest cost route to decarbonisation – evidence from the International Energy Agency shows that without CCS, the cost of meeting a 50% global CO2 reduction target by 2050 would increase by 40%. Similarly, the latest IPCC Synthesis Report suggests that without CCS, the cost of hitting our 2C target for global warming would increase by 138 times.
But the next couple of years will prove to be crucial for CCS. According to the International Energy Agency, to achieve a 50% cut in global CO2 emissions by 2050, CCS will need to contribute nearly 20% of CO2 reductions. This means that we need to move from the handful of successful CCS projects in operation today to building thousands of commercial scale projects worldwide by 2050. The next couple of years will, therefore, be critical for CCS – decisions taken now, will determine whether we will benefit from this technology or shut the door on CCS as a climate change mitigation option altogether.
The worldwide picture is promising. In its 2014 Global Status of CCS report, the Global CCS Institute (GCCSI) identified 22 large scale CCS projects in operation around the world. The beginning of October saw the global premiere of SaskPower’s unveiling of the Boundary Dam Project in Canada: the first commercial-scale project in the world combining post-combustion CCS with coal-fired power generation. The project saw the transformation of an aging coal fired power station unit in Saskatchewan into a producer of low-carbon, base-load electricity. Significantly, Boundary Dam promises to capture 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year – the equivalent of taking more than 250,000 cars off the road annually.
With other CCS projects in Europe and elsewhere either cancelled or still on the starting blocks, there is a lot that we can learn from SaskPower’s project. The technology itself isn’t new– it’s the scale that’s never before been achieved. These projects are vital in promoting awareness and inspiring potential projects which continue to face challenges in starting up. These forerunner projects will help towards building the much needed confidence amongst industry and the financial investment community. And more crucially, such projects are invaluable in gaining the trust and support from governments and local communities.
We need examples of successful CCS more than ever. But such projects must be more than just technology pilots. Boundary Dam not only shows us that the technology is there; but that the economics can stack up and working regulatory frameworks can be put in place. All that’s now needed is the political will. GCCSI has identified numerous ‘shovel ready’ projects across the world. What is urgently needed is a steady roll-out of these projects; ensuring that CCS becomes cost-competitive with other low-carbon technologies in the 2020s. With decisive action, these projects could deliver real benefits in a matter of years and form the foundations of a thriving CCS industry.
It is well understood that with every tonne of fossil fuel consumed without CCS, our need to tackle climate change becomes an ever more critical challenge. CCS projects must succeed – so let’s all hope that this year, is a good year for CCS around the world.