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Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My problem with carbon capture and storage.

The European Energy Review has in the previous few months published a plethora on the subject of carbon capture and storage. Their viewpoint has been both positive and negative. For example, there are two articles showing the case for and against CCS.
Both of these are well written articles and well researched. Both points of view are valid and the question put simply comes down to whether you believe that fossil fuels are needed or not. Assuming that you agree with a goal of a low carbon future, CCS is thus the only way to provide for that while using our remaining reserves of fossil fuels. However the other side would argue against that as it adds to complacency and the CCS is too expensive so we run the risk of running with the status quo.

However my problem with carbon, capture and storage is more to do with the name and thus the implications thereafter. Why? The name is incorrect. The process of CCS is described in many places but essentially, energy is expended to take carbon dioxide out of flue gas streams and then inject this carbon into the ground where it should stay. That is a disposal operation and not a storage operation. Routes for using that amount of CO2 have not been identified and even those proposed (i.e. solvents) are still in very early stages of development and because of the harsh conditions, are a long shot at best. In other words the technology should be called carbon capture and disposal or CCD.

Yet everyone seems to be missing this point. Obviously a disposal technology is at the bottom of the waste pyramid. Thus using this technology only promotes the excessive use of our resources and does not prompt us to use alternatives and cut back. The flip side to this is that storage sounds better and disposal. Further fossil fuels will be necessary for at least the next 50 years (the Germans are projecting at least till 2030 though estimates are broadly showing that half of the grid is based on intermittent sources. Using intermittent sources to power a grid is not feasible according to E.ON and I agree with E.ON; see the summary).

In that context we see a boarder fault. Efficiency in our system is never really brought to the fore. Despite the large subsidies for alternative energy sources and CCS, standard efficiency saving measures are not funded very well. For example estimates at the cost of CCS in the prototype stage suggest that to capture most of the CO2 from a power station, we would require that station to use approximately 30% more fuel to keep its current output. Remember that is at the prototype stage and that is at the initial stages of injection when pressures underground are minimal. Thus we are already loosing an efficiency battle here before we begin.

From that point of view I have large reservations on CCS. I am not necessarily against CCS in total as  I can see that fossil fuels will be required but the emphasis should be on using less and not on making the system more inefficient. The CCS option should really be a last resort. That does not mean that renewable are the answer solely either. Extending the issue is very complex and I can only hope to have sprinkled a bit of light onto the issue regarding my position.