Can ‘critical’ carbon capture projects really work?

Carbon capture and storage infrastructure has a patchy record internationally and two previous government funding rounds collapsed. Gareth Simkins examines the industry’s renewed prospects.

Kemper coal gasification and CCS project The Kemper County Coal Gasification Plant was shut down in 2017 and is now demolished. Photograph: XTUV0010 / Wikimedia Commons

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) still has an air of science fiction about it in the UK. Although there are firm plans to deploy the technology in two industrial clusters by 2025, with three others in the pipeline, no projects are operational here today. In contrast, there are many in the US, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere.

The most famous and successful may be Norway’s Sleipner natural gas field, between Aberdeen and Stavanger. Part of it has been used for CO2 storage for a quarter of a century, injecting more than a million tonnes of the gas each year into sandstone beds, with capacity to carry vastly more.

READ MORE: Carbon capture and storage plants: What are they and where are they?

The system was implemented to remove an unusually high concentration of CO2 in the field’s raw gas. Further incentivised by Norway’s carbon tax and emissions trading credits, the CO2 is piped back rather than vented into the atmosphere.

Norway has also pioneered CCS on land, introducing the world’s first CCS systems for energy from waste and in two years for cement production, too.

A legacy of failure

The UK could have been in a similarly leading position if it was not for a series of missteps.

The government’s first CCS funding competition opened in 2007, with a view to having four plants operational by 2018. It was cancelled in 2011, by when all shortlisted projects had dropped out, largely due to policy delays. The last in the running was retrofitting the now-demolished Longannet coal-fired power station, deemed too expensive.

Separate plans for a coal-fired CCS power station collapsed in 2010.

A renewed competition opened in 2012 fared little better, the government pulling the plug in November 2015. The decision followed the collapse of the White Rose project in North Yorkshire, which partner Drax blamed on government inaction. An investigation by the National Audit Office found that the Treasury was unwilling to provide ongoing financial support for the winning project.

Though coming to around $5bn, US government funding has borne stunted fruit. Several attempts at retrofitting or building entirely new coal-fired power stations have been abandoned after costs overran wildly. After some $6.7bn was spent on the Kemper project in Mississippi, its coal gasification unit was shut down in 2017 and demolished last year.

Mechanical breakdowns have also plagued the technology. A compressor failure at the world’s sole CCS project connected to a major power station, part of the Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, meant it captured only 44% of its emissions last year, against a 90% target.

David Parkin, a director at Progressive Energy, which is leading the HyNet CCS scheme, admitted that the technology has “a chequered history” but “a number of projects are progressing well” now. And where “we have to burn stuff to make stuff… CCS is a necessity, not an option”, he stressed.

Guloren Turan, communications manager at the Global CCS Institute, denied that the technology has had a poor track record, arguing that operational issues and cost overruns were the result of being complex, first-of-a-kind projects.

The close links between CCS and the US and Canadian oil industry have also proven to be an Achilles’ heel. Rather than simply being buried, the CO2 is generally used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – using it to produce more fossil fuel by boosting flow rates. Falling oil prices have made the process uneconomic.

More than four fifths of the CO2 captured worldwide so far has been used for EOR, according to a report for Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES) and Global Witness, produced by the Tyndall Centre last year.

But multiple sources confirmed that the technique will not be adopted in the UK. CO2 will instead be routed into depleted gas fields and saline aquifers.

FOES climate campaigner Jess Cowell, said CCS had “a long history of over-promising and under-delivering”.

“Carbon is already captured and stored underground in fossil fuels. We should be leaving it there instead of spending billions trying to invent technology to solve this problem of our own creation,” she added.

‘Critical and cost-effective’

In contrast, a government person said CCS “will have a key role to play as we move towards net zero”, with a key goal of its programme being the delivery of large-scale industrial decarbonisation.

The advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) described CCS as a “critical and cost-effective” way to hit net zero, while also being a vital aspect of ‘blue’ hydrogen production and greenhouse gas removals through burning biomass (BECCS). Just curtailing deployment somewhat would put huge stumbling blocks in the way of the 2050 target, it said, partly as “no other viable low-carbon alternatives are available” for refineries, energy-from-waste plants and some manufacturers, it said.

The CCC’s projections still imply deploying perhaps quadruple current global CCS capacity in the UK by 2050, clearly a stretching target. Nevertheless, Olivia Powis, head of the CCS Association’s UK office, told ENDS that we, “we can’t afford the luxury of picking and choosing the carbon solutions we can afford… it isn’t just about perpetuating fossil fuels, it’s the only game in town”.

Green Alliance deputy policy director Roz Bulleid was more circumspect, describing CCS as “the solution of last resort” after the likes of electrification and switching to hydrogen fuel.

“I think we probably will need some kind of dispatchable generation,” she said, the options for which – fossil fuels, biomass and hydrogen – all rely on the technology. “It’s also really important if we want to do greenhouse gas removals at scale,” she added.

Lessons were clearly learned from the earlier funding rounds when the government drew up the new £1bn CCS Infrastructure Fund, part of 2020’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, according to the Global CCS Institute. An advisory council has been set up and a much clearer long-term policy context established, aiming to deliver a pipeline of projects across key industrial regions. The government has also outlined how investors could make returns from building the required transport infrastructure and how the industry would be regulated.

Industry has since pounced on the measures, with dozens of firms now collaborating on CCS infrastructure. Other than the net zero imperative, Parkin explained that the key reasons were no longer anchoring projects on power stations, due to the ever-falling cost of renewables and changing the way that risk is distributed. Under the old plans, the government sought a “full chain solution” of capture, pipeline and storage in one package, which “looked really expensive”, he said.

Powis offered similar reasons: “It’s the legislation, it’s the cluster approach, and using a regulated asset base model for transport and storage,” though the industry losing ten years of progress was regrettable.

The goal now is to create CCS networks with multiple users, with the government stepping in to take some of the risk. The regulated asset base model for pipelines also “really reduces the cost of capital”, making investment much more attractive, Parkin added.

He said the main stumbling block now is not the technology or engineering, but integrating the new commercial models. While the ones for transport and storage, power and industrial emissions are “progressing well,” the one for blue hydrogen production is “a bit slower”, which is something of a concern. “Every six or twelve months we delay, pushes back plans,” Parkin warned.

Although there will be substantial subsidies involved, the government views the industry as a potential money spinner for exports, as the country is far from alone in seeing a boom in interest in CCS. The Global CCS Institute became aware of almost half of the 135 commercial developments it is monitoring last year. It says only 28 are fully operating, with 4 in construction.

“The momentum we have seen over the last year towards CCS is considerable, however more is required if we are to reach climate goals", said Turan.