Carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects are a rising source of great hope for achieving carbon neutrality. In combination with the adoption of sustainable and renewable energy sources, evolving CCS technology will enable energy production and industrial processes to be less damaging, by removing carbon before it reaches the atmosphere. The terminology is evolving all the time, with Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS), now being an accepted term, reflecting the development of technologies that can utilise captured carbon in the creation of other products.
Yet, despite high expectations and strong potential, there are still a number of challenges restraining CSS support. Broader adoption of systems like tax credits in the US or the carbon tax in Norway, can help to create a business case for investment. As well as decreasing CCS technology prices combined with the establishing of policies that will effectively make it more expensive to emit carbon.
Although pre and post-combustion carbon capture processes mean a potential reduction of up to 90% of CO2 output from power plants and the opportunity to use the captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), the extraction and storage of CO2 presents a number of technical challenges.
Geological carbon sequestration – the injection of CO2 into deep subsurface rock formations – is the most common solution posited. The concept of CCS began as a component of EOR – forcing gas into deep subsurface rock formations in order to force oil out. It will continue to be the case for a long time that some CCS projects are connected to EOR.
In some cases, ‘greenwashing’ has been applied to the promotional communications of CCS to obfuscate the fact that the primary motivation for CCS is ultimately related to improving the extraction of fossil fuels. However, CCS is now an area in its own right, and several governments are looking at re-using the infrastructure of disused oil wells as potential carbon storage locations. An example being the Gorgan gas project in Western Australia, where by the carbon dioxide is not being buried for carbon price implications or EOR but simply because ‘the Australian government asked Chevron to do so’.
However, this does not come without associated risks, including damage to ecosystems; poisoning water supplies; plant security; and contamination of hydrocarbon resources. Accidental fault lubrication leading to ‘induced seismicity’ (earthquakes caused by human activity) is one major concern. Thus far, poor due diligence has inundated sequestration projects with a host of such issues. Significant efforts to understand the geological subsurface conditions, as well as the implications of misidentification are required to ensure successful investment and project longevity.
The worry that poorly stored carbon may leak is a legitimate one. However, test sites have shown very low levels of gas escaping. Furthermore, various gases are stored naturally underground in vast quantities, regardless of human involvement. There have been natural disasters in this area, such as the Lake Nyos incident in Cameroon, but heavy health and safety burdens are unlikely to see significant danger to public health as a result of CCS projects.
There are multiple solvent-based initiatives currently exploring efficient carbon sequestration methods. One interesting project is C-Capture’s proprietary solvent based technology, capturing carbon at the Drax power plant in Yorkshire. Drax has already reduced its carbon emissions by switching from coal to biomass, and if the C-Capture pilot can be scaled-up, it could become the world’s first negative emissions power station.
The UK government has recently pledged £26 million to fund nine CCS projects, with one Cheshire-based chemical plant aiming to extract 40,000 tonnes of CO2 from the air each year – a figure equivalent to the removal of 22,000 cars from UK roads.
Utilising captured carbon, rather than storing it underground is another growing area. There are a variety of initiatives in the UK and globally to use carbon to make chemicals found in household and consumer goods; clean fuels for vehicles; and even for carbonating drinks.
Perceived Commercial Viability – the value chains linked to CCS applications and projects are in their infancy when compared to other emission-reduction models and thus towards the top of the cost curve. Efforts to design deployment incentives and further reduce capture costs are being made through the separate analysis of the component parts of CCS and CCU value chains. Furthermore, CCS technology is becoming more economical and suitable for non-industrial applications.
One major breakthrough in cost reduction for CCS was achieved at Harvard University in 2018, where researchers developed a Direct Air Capture mechanism utilising existing processes and technologies. As a result, the potential scalability of CCS may well be realised sooner rather than later, not least with government bodies – such as the US Department of Energy – pledging funds for additional research into cost cutting measures. Such moves will only stimulate the global project pipeline and CCS investment support.
Technology Innovation and Commitment – Carbon Engineering, the Direct Air Capture tech company led by Bill Gates, announced their initiatives to support cheaper forms of direct air capture projects on a global scale. CAN$25m was invested in Carbon Engineering by the Canadian government, highlighting the support for pioneering carbon capture and reuse technologies.
In fact, for the adoption of direct air capture and CCS in energy plants, there is a requirement for all-new factory parts and technology to be developed in a cost-effective manner, while the transportation and storage of carbon needs to be economically feasible to truly flourish.
As more people adopt the latest technology, governments continue to inject funding, and the private sector spots opportunities to invest, the potential for carbon capture storage projects to succeed are clear.
Further step changes are required though – particularly in defining the cross-sector responsibilities of controlling CO2 emissions. At present, only 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to electricity and heat production; 60%, meanwhile, are caused by transportation, industry, and agriculture.