The case for capturing carbon in the UK
Climate change is an inherently emotive issue — inspiring action in some and denial in others. But regardless of where the public stands, over 150 governments worldwide have formally adopted carbon reduction targets in an effort to mitigate the environmental damage caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. The UK has pledged to reduce emissions by at least 80 percent of what levels were in 1990 by the year 2050. And while solar panels and wind turbines may enjoy a positive public perception, emissions targets simply cannot be reached using renewables alone.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been posited as a vital technology in ensuring that the UK’s carbon budgets are met, but with the government cancelling a £1 billion funding competition last year, many CCS proponents have been left wondering how to proceed. While the idea of capturing CO2 from flue gases, power stations and industrial processes and storing it deep underground might sound hazardous, Andrew Green, CCS Programme Manager at the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), insists that the associated risks are financial rather than environmental.
“Don’t imagine CCS as though you’ve got a big bomb of CO2 under there that might go off. The carbon dioxide is going to be distributed through a large body of porous rock, it’s not sitting in a big tank,” Green says.
In essence, CCS involves separating carbon dioxide from the mixture of gases emitted from a tail pipe or a power station’s chimney. Once the CO2 has been captured, it can be pressurised and transformed into a liquid-like state for transport through pipelines and, ultimately, burial inside porous geological formations deep underground.
In the UK, most of the practical prospective stores are offshore — anywhere between one and four kilometres beneath the seabed. An impermeable layer of so-called ‘cap rock’ will rest over the top of an ideal CCS formation. Once underground, there are a number of natural mechanisms which will ensure that carbon dioxide doesn’t escape: Firstly, the buoyant CO2 will slowly move upwards through the porous rock until it is trapped by the cap rock. Along the way it gets caught in the microscopic channels in the porous rock like water in a sponge. Over time, the carbon dioxide will dissolve into the saltwater already present in the formation and, over hundreds or thousands of years, harden into solid carbonate.
“If you choose the right geology you end up with a very secure long term store for the CO2,” Green says.
Carbon capture facilities can be put in place at the site of any large-scale process which produces a lot of CO2. The CCS competition which was axed earlier this year was aimed at installing carbon capture and storage facilities at two existing UK power plants.
“Obviously there’s a lot of licking of wounds going on in CCS at the moment after the cancellation of the competition” Green says. “I guess there are a number of people thinking ‘where do we go now?’ and there are a number of different routes.”
In order to get carbon capture and storage off the ground in the UK, Green believes that a private sector leader will have to be willing to come forward and invest in the installation of the technology.
“If we start at the top, the key issue is that virtually any investment an energy company makes will be driven by policy,” Green says. “Whether it’s a wind turbine, or a new gas-fired power station, or putting diesel generators in fields – all of these things are driven by policy environments.
“I guess one of the biggest challenges for CCS has been around coming up with a policy framework and the support for that will enable the private sector to make those investments and be confident that they can see a return.”
Without public sector funding, companies will need to make a significant upfront investment in CCS facilities and, in return, will receive income streams through the lifetime of the plant. However, waiting for costs to fall before implementing the technology is not the answer. The first plant to be built in the UK will always be an expensive undertaking, and will come with its own location-specific risks. Analysis by the ETI has shown that once one CCS facility has been constructed, the cost of building others will inevitably decrease.
“The first jump is going to be a little bit expensive because you’re going to have to put the infrastructure in, although our analysis shows that with close attention to how the project is designed these costs can be manageable,” Green says. “It’s not a technology issue, there’s not a big technology development requirement: it’s about taking that first jump.”
The ETI has created a tool called the Energy System Modelling Environment (ESME) which is capable of finding the least-costly energy system designs to meet stipulated sustainability targets. When the model is run to achieve the UK’s 2050 targets in the most cost-effective way, it has consistently shown that CCS is the single-most valuable technology in the country’s carbon reduction arsenal. Renewable energy has a sizeable part to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but fossil fuels will likely remain a practical, and integral, part of our energy mix in decades to come.
“You could carpet half of Southern England with solar panels, but the other issue you face is energy storage,” Green says.
“You need to provide energy when it’s needed. And when it’s not needed, if you’re making electricity, you’re going to have to store it somewhere. Fossil fuels are the most efficient way of storing energy known to man at the moment.”
Some critics of CCS have voiced concerns that capturing carbon, rather than eliminating it entirely, will further obstruct the process of fossil fuel divestment. For Green and the ETI, the perceived benefits of carbon capture technologies arise from its ability to help the UK meet its carbon capture targets over the next 35 years. In fact, fossil fuel companies, with their existing knowledge of offshore infrastructure, are well-placed to assist with the storage of CO2.
“Working with the fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies with the skills, with the incentives to do it, is a positive way forward to try and find the most cost-effective solution”, says Green.
Getting CCS under construction and into operation is going to take cooperation from multiple players. The government needs to work with industry to provide mechanisms that allow investors to see a realistic prospect of a return on their investment, and risks must be shared going forward. There is also something to be said for the careful and cost-effective construction of the UK’s first plant. This will provide the best basis for further CCS development.
Granted, getting started is easier said than done, but experts know what needs to happen — now it’s down to those with the power to act to take action.
“The innovation that is needed in CCS isn’t so much traditional technological innovation,” Green says.
“It’s innovation of the market and the investment climate.”
Hydrostor receives $4m funding for A-CAES facility in Canada
Hydrostor has received $4m funding to develop a 300-500MW Advanced Compressed Air Energy Storage (A-CAES) facility in Canada.
The funding will be used to complete essential engineering and planning, and enable Hydrostor to plan construction.
The project will be modeled on Hydrostor’s commercially operating Goderich storage facility, providing up to 12 hours of energy storage.
Hydrostor’s A-CAES system supports Canada’s green economic transition by designing, building, and operating emissions-free energy storage facilities, and employing people, suppliers, and technologies from the oil and gas sector.
The Honorable Seamus O’Regan, Jr. Minister of Natural Resources, said: “Investing in clean technology will lower emissions and increase our competitiveness. This is how we get to net zero by 2050.”
A-CAES has the potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions by enabling the transition to a cleaner and more flexible electricity grid. Specifically, the low-impact and cost-effective technology will reduce the use of fossil fuels and will provide reliable and bankable energy storage solutions for utilities and regulators, while integrating renewable energy for sustainable growth.
Curtis VanWalleghem, Hydrostor’s Chief Executive Officer, said: “We are grateful for the federal government’s support of our long duration energy storage solution that is critical to enabling the clean energy transition. This made-in-Canada solution, with the support of NRCan and Sustainable Development Technology Canada, is ready to be widely deployed within Canada and globally to lower electricity rates and decarbonize the electricity sector."
The Rosamond A-CAES 500MW Project is under advanced development and targeting a 2024 launch. It is designed to turn California’s growing solar and wind resources into on-demand peak capacity while allowing for closure of fossil fuel generating stations.
Hydrostor closed US$37 million (C$49 million) in growth financing in September 2019.