Home > Carbon Capture and Storage: scaling up to a viable model

Carbon Capture and Storage: scaling up to a viable model

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Fourteen years into the new millennium, it seems we've finally reached a general consensus that carbon emissions contribute to a climatic environmental situation that could become untenable if tipped beyond a certain point.

Climate change deniers are regarded more and more as fringe-dwellers, while big mining has come to the table in agreeing that we need strategies for dealing with atmosphere damaging pollutants.

With a range of research projects over the years that have developed carbon capture technology to a certain point, why then have we not yet upscaled the technology to a point where it can be used to capture the carbon from entire production plants and mines?

And most importantly, who should pay for all this? Companies or governments?

Rio Tinto's energy division chief Harry Kenyon-Slaney, while speaking at an Energy Policy Institute of Australia meeting, said we can't simply wish away fossil fuels.

"Knowing that coal is here to stay, it is fruitless to keep indulging in idealistic discussions about climate change," he said.

He said that global energy demand will grow 69 per cent in the next 20 years, and that industry has an obligation to take action on climate change.

His comments were met with dubious criticism after disappointing revelations that Rio Tinto had stopped funding the Coal21 group, a billion dollar fund to finance clean coal technology.

"As if to highlight Rio Tinto's own lack of faith in the CCS, Ken­yon-Slaney said the company had invested $100 million in the technology. This from a company that earns billions from coal mining each year - earnings that most analysts say is at risk if the world get serious about climate change," wrote Giles Parkinson for RenewEconomy.

"To put that investment into context," Parkinson added, "a Perth-based start-up, Carnegie Wave Energy, has invested a similar amount in its new technology. It has yet to earn a dollar, but at least it has faith it will work."

In April, The Climate Institute released a world-first study examining the role of carbon removal technologies in national climate policy scenarios.

Moving Below Zero: Understanding Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture & Storage contains modelling by economics firm Jacobs SKM, which has found that bio-energy combined with carbon capture and storage, along with other measures, has the potential to contribute significantly to climate change efforts in Australia.

The main premise of the report is that carbon capture technology is central to developing a lower risk strategies to avoid the prospect of dangerous climate change, a future in which atmospheric carbon reaches a threshold whereby temperatures rise unnaturally, preventing the survival of plant life, affecting all forms of animal life throughout the food chain, including humans.

CEO of The Climate Institute, John Connor, forecasts a strict regime for reducing emissions in order to prevent catastrophic climate change in the latter half of the 20th Century.

"Physics tells us that if we are to avoid very dangerous global warming of 2°C or more above pre-industrial levels, Australia and other countries need not only zero carbon technologies like solar and wind but also to go further, and employ carbon removal technologies," Connor said.

"We examined a range of carbon removal options including afforestation, bio-char and bio-CCS.

"Bio-CCS is potentially the most climate safe technology as it involves removing carbon from the air and storing in in the earth over geological timescales.

"Globally it could remove a substantial amount of carbon pollution from the air - up to 10 billion tonnes of pollution per year in 2050, according to the International Energy Agency."

While global agents like the IEA and the IPCC are urging the use of carbon removal and include the technologies in their modelling, this is not the case on a national level.

Using Australia as a case study, Jacobs SKM economic modelling concluded that Bio-CCS could play a significant role in Australia, with a capacity to remove and displace up to 65 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2-e) annually by 2050, being around one and a half times the current emissions from all cars in Australia.

To achieve this early and strong action on improving climate is needed, with renewables and other low-carbon technologies being critical from today, the report said.

For example, energy efficiency and other renewable energy sources like wind and solar are required to reduce electricity emissions by 50 per cent, from around 200 Mt CO2-e today to 100 Mt CO2-e in 2030 across all scenarios.

Without carbon removal technologies such as Bio-CCS, Australia and other nations will face difficult trade-offs; it will mean accepting more dangerous levels of climate change, paying more for emission reductions, and purchasing more and more emission reductions from other countries.

The report finds that failure to adopt carbon removal technologies could increase climate action costs by up to $60 billion to 2050.

"Carbon removal technologies are hugely important but they have to be employed correctly," Connor said.

"If bio-energy is not sourced from sustainable sources and consider energy used at all stages of the process, it can lead to other social and environmental impacts and undermine the viability of, and public confidence in, the technology."

"With carbon dioxide levels now 40 per cent above pre-industrial levels, it is critical that we begin the conversation now about how to sustainably integrate carbon removal technologies into national climate policies with long term decarbonisation signals and deployment incentives."

Climate change economist Ross Garnaut, who helped to develops Labor's carbon tax policy, agrees that fossil fuels will continue as a dominant global energy source.

However, he too says that the commercial deployment of carbon capture and storage is essential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal and gas fired power stations.

"There's widespread recognition that continuation of current patterns of fossil fuel use will lead us into very dangerous territory, Garnout said in an interview with ABC Rural.

"So the future of fossil fuels is making CCS work so you can use the fossil fuels without creating environmental damage and changing the climate."

"It needs a lot of investment in research, development and commercialisation, but the techniques are well known and the techniques work."

But who will foot the bill for this R&D?

Overseas, the USA's first attempt at large-scale CCS, at the coal-fired Mississippi power plant in Kemper County, has seen costs blowout from $2 billion to more than $5 billion, with owner Southern Co telling an EPA committee in February that the technology was not ready for wider adoption.

"Kemper marks a significant technological milestone but it is only the first step," Southern Co director of environmental affairs Danny Herrin said.

Many say it's these sorts of costs that are deterring further development and wide-scale uptake of the CCS.

With the federal budget set to be handed down this month, all mining eyes will be glued on changes that may affect the sector.

Last year, $29 million was saved by ending funding for the Coal Mining Abatement Technology Support Package, which helps research and develop ways of reducing carbon emissions from mines.

While half a billion dollars was chopped from the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships program, aimed at developing large-scale projects for storing carbon emissions from mining and energy projects.

At the time, the budget papers said the remaining $1 billion funding will allow "at least one project to proceed beyond the feasibility stage".

Many doubt a Coalition government will reinstate this money, and expect even more to be cut in favour of the "direct action" plan.

Meanwhile, while mining see's the benefits of CCS and is in favour of its implementation, is the sector responsible for its implementation?

BHP coal boss Dean Dalla Valle said the company has spent $200 million on renewable technology research including CCS with a $100 million further committed over the next four years.

While many say this amount isn't enough, it does show the major coal producers are doing something about the emissions they produce.

And until a large-scale project can be realised here, all eyes are on the Saskatchewan Power's Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in Canada which due to start this year as the first commercial project of its type.

The $1.35 billion will see the integration of a rebuilt coal-fired generation unit with carbon capture technology, resulting in low-emission power generation.

If the 110 megawatts (MW) plant can come online this year as planned, it will become the world's first post-combustion coal-fired CCS project, and provide hope that the technology is a viable one. 

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