Is Carbon Capture & Storage the Silver Bullet?

Can Carbon Capture and Storage technology (or CCS for short) allow us to deal with climate change without damaging oil company share prices? Many hope that CCS will allow us to mitigate against climate risk without first going through a major global economic transition with the demise of the big oil and coal companies.

CCS, as I’m sure you know, is the process of extracting the carbon dioxide at the point that fossil fuels are turned into energy, and taking that carbon dioxide and storing it safely away under ground for long enough for it to decompose.

As described previously, if we burn the declared resources upon which the big fossil fuel companies share prices rest we will emit 5 times as much CO2 than we can afford to in order to avoid an average global temperature increase of 2° Celsius. And the oil companies are still looking for more – e.g. shale gas, searching the Arctic and so on.

Carbon capture and storage is seen by many as the way through that.

All of the individual elements of the technology exist and are in use. In fact, there are already 8 fully integrated schemes in operation with a commercially viable capability and another 64 in the pipeline (Global CCS Institute, Jan 2013 survey). We are already capturing 20 megatons of CO2 per annum.

Come on, this sounds great. Could it really do the trick? Let’s do some sums.

At the moment, we emit 33 gigatons of CO2 each year. In their scenarios, Shell forecast that will continue to increase to over 40 gigatons per annum by 2040, and will decrease thereafter.

The Global CCS Institute survey reports that they expect us to be able to capture more than 120 megatons of CO2 per annum by 2020. Oh dear, that was megatons wasn’t it? That means we will be capturing about 1 in every 300 tons of CO2 by 2020. A drop in the ever rising ocean.

We must be able to do better than that, surely? Shell scenarios help again, as one of the scenarios they evaluate (Mountains) describes a future where we go all out for CCS, starting in a realistic time frame. It is a little optimistic possibly on that front as the rate of deployment of that CCS outstrips even the most grandiose historic achievements (Kramer-Haigh, Nature 462, Dec 2009). In this scenario, we capture 30%  of CO2 by 2050, and all by the end of the century. We miss the 2° C target by miles.

If not CCS, maybe this?

If not CCS, maybe this?

So, we need to get a move on now rather than later. Unfortunately, the number of potential projects is going down rather than up (is 72 now and was 75 in October 2012). The UK competition (UK CCS Commercialisation Programme) has been held up at the Department for Energy and Climate Change as they are concerned about getting their numbers right following the UK Department for Transport being burned in the evaluation of the West Coast rail franchise competition. The European Commission’s NER300 competition awarded funding to zero CCS projects (out of an expected 12).

Clearly, this needs regulation and vastly quicker progress if this is to be the silver bullet. Let’s not pin our hopes in it just yet.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


4 thoughts on “Is Carbon Capture & Storage the Silver Bullet?

  1. Looks like Carbon Capture is likely to raise the price of electricity by around 50% . It’s going to be unpopular given the price of energy already.

    I heard a debate this morning on the Today program talking about feeding power stations with wood. The downside in the UK would be our inability to produce sufficient of our own, leading to us importing it – and burning oil to do so!

    • Question as always is – do we continue to buy cheap an dirty energy now, or do we pay a little more now so our children have a better quality of life? What do you think?

  2. I fear the UK has been foot-dragging on this since long before the WCML debacle… in stark contrast to the “let’s get on with the job” ethos that epitomises our nuclear programme [ha ha]. Pathetic doesn’t even come near, alas.

    • Unfortunately I can see why they have been dragging their feet – it is a very complicated issue. Also unfortunately, nature doesn’t give a flying monkeys how complicated we find it.

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