Practically every session I attended at COP (including the IETA side events) had somebody on the panel talking about Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), particularly in the context of what the Middle East is doing about Climate Change. So, I thought it merited a blog post about what I learned about CCS.
(From Wikipedia), CCS is the process of capturing waste CO2 from large point sources, such as fossil fuel power plans, transporting it to a storage site, and depositing it where it will not enter the atmosphere, normally an underground geological formation.
Injection of CO2 into geological formations has been occurring since the 1970s, as part of a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). So, why then, has it suddenly become such a hot topic at the Climate Change conference? Apparently, in COP17 in Durban, CCS projects were able to receive support through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). As one of the panelists commented, the process of adding this language took only 10 years – I guess we can thank the glacial pace of international negotiations for all the glaciers melting away!
Here is an oft-repeated graphic, from the IEA, which shows that CCS has to be an integral part of technological solutions to climate change.
So, what are the economic factors that could drive CCS adoption? One of the panelists indicated that CCS will add about 18% to the costs of a power plant. Currently, the price on carbon is not high enough to make CCS economically feasible, even though major efforts are underway by companies like Shell and Qatar Petroleum to solve the technological challenges involved, particularly in the area of subsurface monitoring. So, the major business case (in the US and elsewhere) remains Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), where the additional crude oil that can be extracted through CO2 injection becomes part of the business case.
Regardless of the current economic implications, what I took away was that CCS is going to be key in the future – and not just in oil and gas. In industries such as cement production, the majority of CO2 that is emitted is not due to the burning of fossil fuels or energy use, but CO2 emissions inherent in chemical processes such as calcining. So, these industries will remain CO2 emitters even if the energy they use comes from cleaner sources, and CCS, therefore, will be a key part of their climate change mitigation/adaptation plans.
The scale of capacity building in CCS is huge – the number of projects have to go from ~10 per year to ~100 per year globally from 2020 to 2050. That industry (in 2050) will be the size of oil and gas sector today. So, to put that in perspective, in 40 years, between now and 2050, we will have to build something that took 160 years for the oil and gas industry to create -talk about a grand challenge!
Here is a link to the Qatar Carbonates and Carbon Storage Research Center (QCCSRC), created jointly by Shell, Qatar Petroleum (QP) and the Imperial College London. One of the IETA panels I attended featured Prof. Geoff Maitland, the Director of QCCSRC and a Professor of Chemical Engineering from Imperial College London. More information on Shell and CCS can be found here – including some cool videos on how CCS works.
The one rather alarming event I learnt about through some digging around online after the sessions – the Lake Nyos disaster in 1986, when a sudden CO2 release (due to natural processes) resulted in the asphyxiation of 1700 people within 16 miles of a lake in Cameroon! Shell assured the audience that safety will be of paramount importance in the design and implementation of future CCS sites and one of the panelists also claimed that these sites will get safer with time due to a combination of geologic factors. I do, however, see plenty of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protest potential with this technology.