(Why We Need More Investment Into CCS Technology.) Part 1: Setting the Scene
The UK has relied on fossil fuel for thousands of years. Coal was the backbone of the Industrial Revolution and, after sail, was the fuel which helped to power our ships across the seven seas, it was a coal fire which people came home to after a hard days work, it was the life blood of our rail system, both as a fuel and as freight. All very nostalgic, however coal has many drawbacks when used as a fuel. The most obvious is that it is carbon based and, therefore, when burned, vast amounts of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere plus it leaves behind in the form of ash particles, heavy metals, mercury, nitrates and sulphates plus many more.
Coal, more or less, fuelled the country and the Empire. Unfortunately, in doing so it brought many serious problems. As far back as 1853 an Act was passed, (Smoke Nuisance Abatement -Metropolis – Act) in London because of the poor air quality there, Something from which London had suffered from for generations.
In 1952 an event happened in London which woke the Government up to the fact that, whilst a cheap fuel, coal used as such was a potential killer. In December of that year the “Great Smog” fell over the city and it was the after effects of this which gave rise to the Clean Air Act of 1956. It was estimated that over 12000 people died because of the Great Smog with more (over 8000) dying in the following weeks and months. Fog was so thick it stopped some public events, public transport and, cars in the street.
To reduce air pollution, The Act contained a number of measures such as, the use of smokeless fuels, cleaner coal, the re-allocation of power stations away from cities and for some factory chimneys to comply with a minimum height. Households were also encouraged to find alternative methods of heating their homes, such as using gas or electricity. There was another ‘Clean Air Act’ which came into Law in 1968. This reinforced the previous Act and was designed to spread awareness and further address the problem of air pollution in this country.
After a speech by Margaret Thatcher to the Royal Society where she called for action against man-made climate change the the British Establishment and media took an interest in Climate Change. It was widely believed that Mrs Thatcher drew attention to this to promote the need for more nuclear power after destroying the British coal industry following the miners strikes of 1984 – 85. She also had large and vociferous environmental organisations demanding alternatives to the Government line on energy. It was not only in Britain, many European country’s also ‘took up the cudgel’ and implemented policies to reduce “Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. West Germany started to take effective action after the Green Party took seats in Parliament during the 1980’s.
In 1997, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), took place in Kyoto, Japan. The recommendations were ratified by all but a few Nations and what was to become known as the Kyoto Protocol was born. Even after this historic agreement, Global Warming was not big news, that is, until the drought, in the USA, during 1988. In a testimony to the Senate, James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, stated that,
“the abnormally hot weather plaguing our Nation is explicitly attributed to global warming.”
This really started the ‘ball rolling’, Environmentalists started crawling out of every conceivable nook and cranny. Fossil fuels, which had sustained the human race since the discovery of fire, suddenly became a cause for evil. Everything that was wrong with the Planet, from bad weather to volcanic eruptions was because man burned fossil fuels, ergo, man was destroying the Planet.
Ex Vice President, Al Gore jumped on the band wagon, lying his way to a best selling book and film both decrying the drastic effects of climate change on the Planet. Minor celebrities saw their chance and rushed to the nearest tree for a hug and then sold pages of tabloid space by telling of how they felt at one with Nature. If nothing else, Global Warming and Climate Change have probably given more wannabe’s their “five minutes of fame”, than any other subject.
Cleaner Coal & Fossil Fuels.
It was obvious that something had to be done to clean up fossil fuels. There is a whole other argument about Climate Change and Global Warming but that will be for another blog, however it is safe to say that the concerns raised by the prospect of Global Warming through the release of, so called, greenhouse gasses’ accelerated the research into ways of cleaning the emissions from fossil fuels. Here, though, I am going to concentrate on “clean coal”
Cleaner coal (Some would say, by whose definition.) was already on the market in the form of coke, anthracite and other derivatives but most coal fired power stations were still using coal transported straight from the pit-head. What was needed was a new technology if coal was to continue to be used on a Global scale.
Carbon dioxide, identified as a greenhouse gas, was being used in the early 1970’s for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). CO2 is extracted from fossil fuels and liquefied before being pumped into the oil well to force the crude up to the wellhead. Whilst this proved that extracted CO2 could be safely put to good use it didn’t answer the basic question about fossil fuels and the emissions from them which polluted the atmosphere.
Then, in 1989, the Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies Program was initiated at MIT. This investigated methods of capturing CO2 from a large stationary source and then transporting and storing it in a safe environment. For example, extracting CO2 from power plant flue gasses.
As of 2002, the only known industrial operation engaged in CCS for the purpose of avoiding carbon emissions was Statoil’s natural gas mining operation off the shore of Norway. As in other natural gas operations, chemical solvents are used to remove CO2 from the natural gas, which is approximately 9% CO2 by volume. Rather than pay Norway’s hefty carbon emissions tax—which was lowered from about £130 per ton of carbon (tC) to £92/tC in 2000 (Herzog 2001)—Statoil has been compressing and injecting the captured CO2 into a deep, saltwater aquifer below the ocean floor since 1996. The project incurred an incremental investment cost of £52 million, with an annual tax savings of £36 million. Scientific monitoring of the site indicates that the aquifer is indeed holding the injected CO2, though monitoring, modelling, and analysis will provide a better indication of storage stability.
A paper released in 2003 by Soren Anderson and Richard Newell analyses the methods and cost implications of CCS in the USA.
“The Prospects for Carbon Capture & Storage.”
Cost and Political Interference:
The UK is a world leader in CCS research but commercialisation is slow to take off. Something that both Government and industry will live to regret. The Government offered a £1 billion prize to help commercialise CCS but it didn’t generate a winner. CO2 storage in aquifers, onshore or offshore is the apparent stumbling block. It has been estimated that there is enough storage capacity for the next 200 years of global emissions and that at least 99% of injected CO2 will remain trapped for the next 1000years. Add to this, storing CO2 underground can lead to enhanced oil recovery from oil fields, which could boost oil outputs by 7-20%
As usual with this country the real problem lies with the question of liability. The companies interested in this technology wanted the Government to accept any liability from underground storage of CO2 but the bureaucrats in Whitehall, backed by the then Coalition, expected the companies to keep the liability on their balance sheets. Herein lies the problem, to achieve the 80% carbon emission reduction target by 2020 then CCS technology is vital. For a coal fired power station it would mean reductions of 80 – 90%.
To quote Paul Fennel, of The Imperial University’s Grantham Institute,
“At a UK level, if CCS is developed elsewhere and the UK doesn’t play its part in the development then you are looking at an industry that is about the same size as the oil industry is at the moment. It’s a trillion dollar industry that the UK would fail to secure its rightful share of. We are currently world leading in the research areas and we punch well above our weight as it stands.”
“At a global level, the consequences of failing to develop CCS technologies are that the cost of CO2-neutral electricity could sky-rocket because you’re relying on renewables and maybe nuclear. The problem with these is that you can’t ramp them up and down in response to demand. Renewables switch on and off themselves without any controllability so what happens is you need to build hugely more renewables than you actually need to produce a particular power output.
The problem as I see it is threefold; the EU, EU compliant politicians and profit hungry power generators.
The EU Renewable Energy Directive, accepted by our politicians, will force thousands of British families into fuel poverty. A situation which could have been avoided if the greedy power companies had diverted their vast profits into CCS technology for existing coal fired plants. Solvent scrubbing which can be retrofitted to existing plants was ready for use in 2010. This method cleans and extracts CO2 after combustion. Other than the question of liability over storage, both the Government and the power companies quoted ‘fiscal restraints’ as the reason for not adopting this technology. The result of this paucity of forward thinking is that 5 coal fired power stations were closed before the end of 2014 and they accounted for 10% of the UK’s electricity needs. Typically the operators had been running them flat out to take advantage of cheap coal and so boost there profits. So, we will have less spare capacity, it is estimated that this will fall to less than 4% by 2016
We not only have the technology, we also have very cheap raw materials for CO2 absorption in abundance. Studies at Leeds University have shown that limestone and dolomite are natural CO2 storage materials and can be used for either pre or post carbon capture technologies.
It was envisaged in the early days of CCS that the cost of implementing these technologies would be extremely high and therefore prohibitive. Leeds University have shown this not to be true anymore.
Using this technology, coal would still be the most cost effective method of generating electricity.
The table below is the estimated levelised costs (pence/kWh) of low carbon electricity generation technologies.
Technology 2011 Estimate 2040 Central Projection
Wood CFBC 10.3 7.5
Tidal Stream 29.3 13
Tidal Barrage 51.8 22
Solar PV 34.3 8
River Hydro (best Locations) 6.9 5
Onshore Wind 8.3 5.5
Offshore Wind 16.9 8.5
Nuclear 9.6 6
Geothermal 115.9 9
Energy Crops 17.1 11
CCGT with Carbon Capture 10 10
I’ll leave you with this little gem; for all the Wind worshippers out there –
On the night of 5-6 April 2011, the wind in Scotland was high, it was raining heavily, which also created more hydroelectricity than normal. The grid became overloaded preventing transmission of the electrical power to England, as a result the electrical wind power generation was cut. Wind Farm Operators were paid compensation known as “constraint payments” as a result, (approximately £900,000) by the National Grid, estimated at twenty times the value of electricity that would have been generated.
After its implementation in 2011 it was estimated that nearly £10m in constraint payments would be received, representing ten times the value of the potential lost electricity generation. That year, several Energy Companies informed the Government that 17 gas-fired plants costing £10 billion would be needed by 2020 to act as back up generation for wind. They added that as they would be standing idle for most of the time they (the generating companies) would require “capacity payments” to make the investment economic, on top of the subsidies already paid for wind.
British Summer Time