CCS Is Not An Energy Policy
by Jo Abbess
15th January 2008
Carbon Capture and Storage can never be a Big Hitter in the efforts to mitigate Climate Change.
It’s always going to remain costly relative to other technologies and geoengineering projects and it poses a significant risk of failure.
It may not be possible to keep Carbon Dioxide locked away safely underground.
Plus, the geological formations required to keep it reliably contained in great quantities may not be very widespread.
It may end up as a niche pursuit. It might not be possible to scale it up.
It looks like it could be yet another Big White Elephant – a lemon – a money pit.
What the Government themselves say :-
“The processes involved in CCS are not novel, but have yet to
be demonstrated together at scale. The Government made clear
in the Energy Review in 2006 that the next logical step for CCS
would therefore be building a full-scale demonstration plant subject
to this being cost effective. The PBR (Pre-Budget Report) in
December 2006 announced the appointment of consulting engineers
“to ensure that our understanding of the costs of a CCS plant based
in the UK is robust”, and the 2007 Energy white paper
“meeting the energy challenge” subsequently announced that a
competition would be launched in November 2007 to build the
world’s first full scale CCS power plant in the UK…Analysis of
carbon capture and storage cost-supply curves for the UK :-
Energy Review 2006 :-https://www.berr.gov.uk/energy/review/page31995.html
2007 Energy White Paper :-
After the original piece on CCS :-
we received the expert feedback below…
E-Mail Transcript (Edited)
from: Jo Abbess
to: Colin Forrest
date: Jan 15, 2008 1:56 PM
…You believe I am making a faux pas, wrongfooting myself, and I appreciate the fact that you consider this important enough to get in touch, with your correction.
On technical and engineering grounds, I’m happy to defer to greater knowledge. However, in terms of looking at politics and the economics, I think I have some valid points to make, and I believe that these considerations will actually outweigh the potential benefits of CCS.
The Big Picture
With CCS, like all Climate Change mitigation technologies, it’s important not to get carried away by a good idea, or get stuck in the engineering or technical detail.
We need to scope out the landscape and take a look at where CCS fits into the bigger picture.
High Relative Cost : How Ever The Market Changes
Look at the context in which it is emerging. We already know it’s (going to be) expensive, and that’s going to cover operational costs as well as infrastructural costs.
It’s true that you have to invest “embodied energy” into new plant for Renewable Energy technologies, but then the day-to-day operational costs of generation, maintenance and decommissioning of, say, Wind Turbines, are really low.
CCS however, in addition to the energy costs of investment will need continual “energy input” for routine operation of the plant – pumping gas underground will only be a part of that.
For any given Climate Change technology, more input energy implies more Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and their consequential economic burden.
In one way or another, we will start to price Carbon in the near-term. As the Carbon Price rises, so will the cost of CCS. It will stay expensive relative to the rest of the energy economy, and so the uptake of CCS on a large scale is in doubt.
The Climate Change technician at the Global Garage looks over the Energy Automobile which is producing too much smoke, and says with a sharp intake of breath, “Well, we can put the filter it out – but it’s going to cost ya !” The question is : who’s gonna pay that ?
Different Target : Wrong Tools
The principal reason for pursuing CCS at the present time is to do “energy recovery” – that is – pumping Carbon Dioxide into depleted oil and gas wells to enable the remaining hydrocarbons to be expelled.
There’s money in that, but not in a CCS project that produces no energy or other profit.
People are saying that when the cost of Carbon rises, CCS will look more viable. However, as the price of Carbon rises, the costs of CCS will rise with it. It will stay relatively expensive compared to other costs of Climate Change technologies.
And can we see the actual costs so far, rather than projections ? And what about the Energy Return on Energy Invested ?
Of the plants currently in operation, what is the sum total of the volumes of gas injected ? And is this at all commensurate with the emissions created to set the plant up in the first place ?
Has the Carbon Accounting even been done yet ? And what about full lifecycle Carbon Accounting – taking into account any continued monitoring required and decommissioning of plant ?
And why are companies agreeing to start CCS projects and then abandoning them ?
The Proposed Technology versus The Actual Technology
The downside to the idea about using saline aquifers, as far as I understand it, is that there are conditions inherent in the geological formations which could mean limits on the quantities that they can store, and vulnerable to even minor changes in the strata that could cause seepage, both laterally and vertically, even if the Carbon Dioxide is under sufficient pressure to be liquid at point of burial.
I’m not a geophysicist, so I cannot validate all the information I have read about this, but they seem to be key problematics.
The point is that for the most part the use of saline aquifers remains on the drawing board. What people are actually doing is pumping CO2 into depleted or disused hydrocarbon wells and mines.
And it is within that frame of reference that I talk about the infrastructure problems and the fact that CO2 will not fit back into the holes the Fossil Fuel came from.
There are people with deep research qualifications who scorn CCS for the two arguments I have outlined. I am not being disparaging for some ideological reason, but for an ultimately pragmatic one.
High-Tech Red Herring
CCS is a sop as far as I’m concerned – a token high engineering gesture to get people to accept the continued burning of coal.
In the current public “debate” about the new Nuclear Power decision, up pops Tom Burke to give an expert opinion on Nuclear. He’s against.
But what is not pointed out is what he is for. He is a leading light in the campaign to promote Carbon Capture and Storage. He is Mr Clean Coal himself.
And when I had the opportunity to corner someone who shall remain nameless who works with the Department of BERR (formerly known as the DTi), he confirmed that the CCS project being proposed is merely a “demonstration” project.
Not even he was confident that it will be successful by any measure, whether financial, emissions-wise, energy-wise or geologically stable.
He said that the CCS project is being pursued in order to convince the Chinese to do it.
The point is : the Chinese won’t do it. It’s too costly. And we’re being typically patriarchal if we think we can “lead” the Chinese on energy and emissions policy.
Policy of Polite Provocation
Part of my role seems to remain an irritant – it’s a bit part in the Climate Change theatre that suits me just fine.
I need to provoke discussion on policy and the directions that various technology could lead us to.
I want people to read things that shake them up – out of their armchairs.
All is not right, and we need to change some points of view and the illogical positions held by those who are in charge of national policy.
Do I want to be taken seriously ? Yes, sometimes. I don’t mind. Do I care about being completely knowledgable ? No – I can rely on painting a sufficiently clear enough picture for people to be able to understand the traps we keep getting sucked into.
Simple Is Best : Complex Is Beast
I’m trying to make it basic enough for people to get through to the core issues. They’re mostly very simple.
Let’s take one little example : traffic congestion. About a third of the
entire Climate Change problem is transport. But what’s on offer ? “We’ll build you some big new roads. There. That helped. It cost you, though. Oops. It didn’t help actually. Well, how about these new, low emissions cars with high embodied energy from the production process ?”
It would be more effective to step up enforcement on the law – stopping and searching every car on a few key roads in every town and stripping people from their driving licences if they don’t have car insurance.
That would take about 1 in 5 drivers off the road.
The basic problem is that there are too many cars, not that there are too few roads. Not even downsizing the actual physical dimensions of the cars will help much.
I do write nicely sometimes and if you carry on reading you may find something agreeable. Some of it might even change your mind.
I’m deeply suspicious of CCS – not only the actual technology but also why it is being promoted.
Some CCS may turn out to be safe and permanently stable – but it won’t ever add up to much. It won’t go far enough to clean up coal in my opinion.
My central bone of contention is that it hasn’t been seriously field tested and yet we are concentrating on it to the exclusion of other known quantities – and I don’t mean Atomic Energy.
Nobody can honestly truthfully say whether CCS will work or not on the scales required to permit the continued burning of coal.
I read George Monbiot’s excellent book “Heat”, outlining the possible benefits of CCS, probably informed and inspired by your own knowledge and opinions – and I was left thinking that CCS might be useful.
I started to read more about it and saw some limitations.
The thing that solidified my opposition to CCS was this : when I was reading the proposals for a new coal-fired power station in Kent, the marketing blurb said that the plant was to be built “capture ready”.
In other words, the plant was going to be built without CCS technology from the outset – trusting that the technology will become cheap enough and effective enough to add later on. When will it ever ?
This was an obvious and complete cop out – a cheat to validate the new coal plant proposal.
(Plus, how could one get the CO2 from the Isle of Grain into a suitable well or aquifer ? Nobody discussed that. )
Offering large-scale engineering technologies as if they are solutions is a game that’s been played for decades.
Brilliant minds have made good livings in the Space, MilTech and Nuclear Power programs – keeping their noses out of the dirty stink of the politics behind these programs.
The practical case for CCS is so vaguely rooted in common sense.
It’s very, very cheap to do Energy Conservation – and various forms of Energy Efficiency – as long as it’s well-regulated it will have enormous and serious impact. In addition, it can be done quickly.
This is the best way to handle the Energy Crunch – use less of it.
But the centrist “Predict and Provide” paradigm still rules at the departments of government. “We shall generate for you dear citizens, and keep the lights on with dirty, filthy coal, and we shall bury the emissions gas. All of it. Honest.”
I don’t believe a word of it.
CCS is a big guns technology, developed for energy recovery, but which was reasoned could have some Climate Change mitigation potential, and therefore was promoted on that basis.
Just like Nuclear.
Put A Number On It
Atomic Energy ? Lovely theory. Wasteful and messy fact. Exactly how much energy input is required to generate how much energy output ? 50% of the output ? 80% of the output ?
Nobody really knows.
CCS : saline aquifers under the North Sea could hold 300 years of European emissions waste. 300 years ? If the emissions are held steady and do not increase exponentially as predicted by the International Energy Agency ? And what about the emissions from other sources than fossil fuels, increasing from positive feedbacks ? Could they go in the hole as well ? How long before mini local earthquakes are caused that spill all the gas out again ?
Nobody really knows.
It is clear from talking to various people and reading various reports that the main target respositories for CO2 emissions will remain the depleted hydrocarbon cavities – naturally self-contained bubbles that previously held oil and liquid and gas in a stable and safe way.
It could turn out that these are the only reliable locations for CCS.
Nobody really knows.
Carbon Crunch : Risk Of Failure
Of course, CCS in oil fields can persuade the last crude to come gushing out – or in the case of the North Sea – dribbling out – so it has gain – even if it only increases production by a few percentage.
The problem as I see it is the “Carbon Crunch” – that there will come a time when there is a seriously decrease in Oil and Natural Gas supply, and we won’t be able to justify using these remaining Fossil Fuels for kickstarting the Renewables Energy program that we need for the long-term. Then we’ll be in trouble.
CCS is a high energy input Carbon “offset”. The best thing to do would be to not burn the coal in the first place.
With all the uncertainty of the actual economics and take-up of CCS, and even the success of using various geological formations, I think that CCS fails in the same way that the Biofuels proposal failed.
With Biofuels, negative outcomes were put forward, but the technology was followed up anyway. And the negative predictions turned out to be true.
There is a significant risk of failure with CCS.
The promotion of CCS falls victim to the “Promise of Future Joy” syndrome. “We’ll lay out the case – the problems – and make you anxious enough, for long enough until you accept the solutions we propose.”
It’s rather like selling life insurance.
This is a propaganda war.
CCS is not an energy policy. It’s not even a Climate Change mitigation policy. It’s an energy recovery technology.
It’s not even properly scoped yet. How long will we have to wait to know if it can help or not ? Why are we being made to wait to find out ?
The big wins with Climate Change are in immediate action. In Energy Conservation and various forms of Energy Efficiency.
Let’s not delay any more by following potentially false roads.
Agreeing to more Research and Development programs (R&D) is allowing delay. Allowing the development of a technology and seeing if it works or not is a delaying tactic. Commissioning committees and reports – all makes for a waste of precious time. Don’t make me wait for CCS.
Of special note : trials are to be conducted by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (the DBERR that replaces the former DTi Department of Trade and Industry).
We can conclude that CCS is being proposed for the business potential – attracting huge state funding for private engineering projects. Is this an effective policy ? Why not just use less energy in the first place, avoiding the need for burying emissions ?
Why aren’t we going down the road of Carbon Cuts, then ? Is it that Energy Conservation just cannot offer big industrial subsidies ?
We already have most of the technology tools we need to beat Climate Change. We cannot afford to wait. We cannot afford to wait for the development of risky ventures.
The E-Mail Feedback (Edited)
from: Colin Forrest
to: Jo Abbess
date: Jan 14, 2008 7:28 PM
…You may be shooting yourself in the foot a bit with your recent post about CCS.
Salt Water Caverns
Most of the storage potential for CO2 is in saline aquifers, not old oil and gas wells, and there is immense capacity worldwide. Under the North Sea there is room for 300 years of Europe’s emissions.
All Kinds Of New Infrastructure Will Cost
Yes there is a carbon/energy cost for new infrastructure, and globally, for the amount of infrastucure required globally to build a low carbon economy, this will be substantial. I call these “backlash ” emissions. This applies not only to CCS, but also applies to windmills, wave machines, solar panels, nuclear power stations, insulation in buildings, energy efficient vehivcles and machinery, etc, and the pipelines are relatively energy efficient ways to transport fluids.
Yes there is a lot of low grade waste heat from power stations, whether nuclear, concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, nuclear, fossil or biomass. The solution is to “cascade” the low grade waste heat (heating buildings, greenhouses, etc.)
Regarding transport of energy, again the transmission losses that you attribute to CCS are equally problems for other concentrated power sources, particularly wind, wave and tidal in the UK, concentrated solar thermal in deserts and biomass in remote boreal forests in the US, Canada and Asian Russia.
Again, the solution to this is equally useful to all remote energy generating technologies…High voltage DC power lines are the new thing…less transmission losses.
Up And Running
You also state that CCS is “flashy toy technologies, untried, untested and unlikely to scale up.” Unfortunately many people in the field know that about a dozen plants currently bury CO2 in the ground, with the nearest, Sleipner, in the North Sea, burying 0.5 million tons a year.
Get It Checked
These glaring factual errors, and lack of understanding of energy systems will weaken anything else that you or the Climate College produce. No one will take you seriously.
I recommend that…at least get your writing screened by someone who knows a little about the subject before you put it in the public domain, otherwise your efforts will be undermined by these inaccuracies.