30 Nov 2009

Ten ideas to save the planet: burying the problem

It may be expensive but with coal demand expected to soar by 2030 capturing and storing carbon emissions is as vital as ever. The UK’s top scientists tell us why.

Schwarze Pumpe plant in Germany. (Getty)

What idea policy or technology holds the greatest promise for tackling climate change? That was the question Channel 4 News posed to the scientific community over the past few weeks.

Thanks to the extensive contacts of the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution Channel 4 News was able to email hundreds of scientists across various fields of expertise to sound-out their opinions.

Among a number of scientists the verdict was unanimous – carbon capture and storage must work.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change predicts that by 2030 global coal demand will rise by 70 per cent.

But where coal burns, carbon is emitted. And these emissions must be stored long term in order to combat our changing climate.

“In the immediate future, I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS),” Dr Andrew Yool from Ocean Modelling and Forecasting told Channel 4 News.

“I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to Carbon Capture and Storage.” Dr Andrew Yoo

“In principle, these will allow technological societies to retrofit existing infrastructure while continuing to use fossil fuel resources without exacerbating either climate change or ocean acidification.”

The Black Pump
CCS is a means of capturing carbon emissions from source (fossil fuel power plants) and storing it away from the atmosphere under ground.

Long term storage of CO2 is not only expensive but it is also a relatively new concept.

Last year operations began at the world’s first ever coal-fired power plant with facilities to capture and store its own emissions.

Built as an extension of the Schwarze Pumpe plant in Germany, the mini power station is a pilot for CCS (pictured above). It uses an oxyfuel boiler which injects a cloud of powered lignite into pure oxygen.

Nine tonnes of CO2 are emitted an hour, as well as energy through heat and water vapour.

Schwarze Pumpe plant in Germany. (Getty)

The CO2 is then separated and condensed into a liquid form which is easier and more efficient to transport. Cylinders containing the liquid emissions are then ready to be taken to a gas field and forced 1,000 meters below the surface of the Earth.

There are currently dozens of proposed CO2storage sites around the world. Most plan on injecting at least 700,000 tonnes of CO2 into the ground each year, according to the Scottish Centre for Carbon Storage.

Some one the best natural containers for carbon storage are old oil and gas fields such as those in the North Sea.

The plant operators Vattenfall have hailed the pilot a success and now wish to scale up the research and development. Their aim is to have CCS power plants in commercial operation by 2020.

But questions about where the liquid carbon is stored still remain. Critics also believe that CCS power plants will be too expensive for commercial use – Vattenfall funded the Schwarze Pumpe project at a cost of 70m Euros.

CCS expense
Tackling climate change is proving an expensive feat for the world’s powers. But could long term costs continue to spiral if action is not taken?

Robert Bell from AEA Technology – the principal advisors to the UK government on climate change – told Channel 4 News that CCS was crucial to curbing costs.

“Previous International Energy Agency (IEA) work has shown that the costs of preventing climate change will be 70 per cent higher if CCS is not deployed,” he said.

“The IEA has recently presented a roadmap for CCS, consistent with desired global CO2 emissions reduction of 50 per cent by 2050 against 1990 levels.

“The effects of placing large quantities of carbon dioxide underground or even under the sea are yet to be determined.” Eric Petela

“This roadmap envisages 100 CCS plants in operation by 2020, and 3,000 by 2050.”

AEA’s chief technical officer added that capturing carbon was of “paramount importance” due to the economic growth of new world powers.

“CCS is the only technology that can significantly reduce CO2 emissions from coal-fired power generation in China and India.

Carbon capture: saviour of coal?

“These countries import oil and gas. Using (indigenous) coal is their means of achieving economic growth and energy security, and alleviating poverty.

“Their globally dominant future increase in energy demand, and coal use, can be met in a climate friendly way only by deploying CCS.”

But could there be another reason why carbon capture and storage may not be the answer?

Eric Petela, the director of business consulting at AspenTech told Channel 4 News that, “CCS technology remains largely unproven.”

“The full extent of its benefits are still to be verified, and indeed the effects of placing large quantities of CO2 underground or even under the sea are yet to be determined.

Petela added that the technique is has not net been proven to be “commercially viable”.

“Efficient energy management must be the clear focus for industry in the future.

“Not only does this approach help to reduce CO2 emissions, it also makes sound business sense across industry sectors,” he said.

Can we afford not to?
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) emailed Channel 4 News about the importance of CCS. Their report, which can be viewed here, says it is time the UK delivered on carbon capture and storage in order to meet targets.

“The UK has made a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, based on 1990 levels,” said ICE director general Tom Foulkes.

“While this is an achievable target, schemes that can provide large scale reductions in emissions need to be implemented at the earliest stage possible.

“With an estimated 70 per cent of the world’s electricity generated by coal, being able to almost decarbonise the generation process [through CCS] would have a significant impact on emissions levels.”

“The UK has made a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, based on 1990 levels.” Tom Foulkes

In order to have a clear road map on the deployment of CCS the ICE recommend that the government create a national policy which allows industry to have “technological freedom” and also resolves licence, planning and regulation.

Eric Mackay from the Institute of Petroleum Engineering, Heriot-Watt University, agreed that the time for action on CCS was now.

“According to experts in climate, the time frames for climate change are such that we must act with urgency,” he said.

“Unlike most other geoengineering options, all aspects of CCS – carbon capture, transportation, pumping into the subsurface and secure long term storage – are currently being implemented. The technology exists and is proven.

“CCS is a technology that should be considered alongside a raft of other options. The advantage it has is that, with suitable (albeit significant) investment and an appropriate regulatory framework in place, it can start to have an impact within five years. No other technology shows that level of promise in that time frame, other than nuclear.

“I see CCS as a safe and currently available technology to reduce climate change in the immediate future.

“Costs will be significant, especially while infrastructure is established, but are not prohibitive in comparison with other alternatives. As overall CCS cannot generate wealth…impetus must come from governments – in the form of legislation, investment and provision of incentives.

“That will only occur if public opinion is strong enough, and the public is willing to bear the cost, by some mechanism or other.

“But can we afford not to?”