Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why carbon capture and storage will never pay off

By  | March 6, 2013, 1:50 AM PST
Will carbon capture and storage (CCS) ever pay off?
For many years, we’ve been told that CCS systems and processes will allow us to reduce carbon emissions and stop global warming while continuing to use fossil fuels. CCS has been a key assumption of the “450 Scenario” in the International Energy Agency’s annual energy outlook reports, in which the world can meet its energy needs while keeping atmospheric carbon concentration below 450 parts per million (ppm). If you read the news, you might even think CCS systems are well on their way to becoming a commercial reality.
But the fact is, they aren’t. And current trends suggest they never will be.
The main reason is the cost. Finding good data on the cost of CCS is difficult, because it simply doesn’t exist. No commercial-sized power plants equipped with the technology have been built yet. All of the cost data we have are estimates based on engineering designs, which are notorious for being much lower than reality.
Two things are clear: Since 2004, the cost of building a new power plant equipped with CCS has been escalating rapidly along with the costs of all construction commodities (like oil and steel). And those costs are now rising above the cost associated with power generation from renewables.

High costs

CCS is really a catch-all term for a variety of technologies and processes. The first part, carbon capture, usually imagines that devices will be integrated into the exhaust end of coal- or natural gas-fired power generation plants, removing some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The second part, storage (aka sequestration), imagines that the captured CO2 will be compressed into a liquid, then either buried permanently underground or sold for use in industrial processes. For example, CO2 is used to make soft drinks fizzy, and to loosen up oil from old reservoirs as part of “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR) operations.
Various kinds of CCS have been imagined for capturing CO2 out of ambient air, as a way to deal with widely dispersed emissions from things like vehicles, but those ideas really belong in the category of “geo-engineering” and would be far more expensive and difficult than capturing concentrated CO2 straight out of a power plant. CCS has also been eyed for emissions from cement factories, blast furnaces for steel production, fertilizer factories, and other industrial facilities, but the main focus is on power plants. If we can’t make CCS work for power plants, we probably can’t make it work anywhere, so I am focusing on that here.

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