Oh CCS, Where Art Thou?

To anyone tracking the progress of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in the U.K. over the past several years, last week’s shelving of the Longannet Project in Scotland comes as little shock. This tortured process to contribute £1 billion of the government’s money to a workable proposal has been playing out since 2007. Multiple bidders have fallen away until just ScottishPower and its consortium were left standing. The reasons for its demise are many, but surely the facts that large-scale carbon capture and storage is unproven and outrageously expensive must be near the top.

There are commercial projects operational around the world that separate carbon dioxide from fossil fuel, with an embryonic pipeline network to carry the separated gas to where it’s required. This has likely contributed to the perception that CCS at scale is close to ready. It is not. Most of these plants in operation don’t sequester the carbon dioxide at all, but rather use it for industrial chemistry (e.g., to make fertiliser) or food production (fizzy drinks). Those that sequester do so for enhanced oil recovery — a carbon ponzi scheme to re-pressurise declining oil wells and increase yields. In all these applications, permanent storage was never an objective so there was no need to worry about the intergenerational risk of leakage that no commercial insurer could ever price.

Government fealty to the promise of CCS is nearly universal. The Zero Emissions Platform, a European consortium of CCS well-wishers, states that over $26 billion in funding has been proposed by governments globally for large-scale projects. Longannet aside, the U.K. government has pledged to keep its £1 billion on the table. But this largesse can’t change one stubborn fact: there’s not a single utility-scale CCS plant operating anywhere on the planet, nor will there be in the immediate future.

In the United States, what was supposed to be the largest CCS demo in the world was shelved last summer. The lead partner, American Electric Power, cited economics and regulatory uncertainty as the justification — even though the federal government planned to pick up half the tab. FutureGen, another U.S. government CCS program that has gone in fits and starts for nearly a decade, hopes to have a project up and running by 2015.  Mind-boggingly slow considering the government is fronting 75 percent of the capital cost.

Longannet hoped to sequester two million tonnes of CO2 per annum — a good deal less than 0.5 percent of annual U.K. emissions. True, one needs to start somewhere. But what CCS boosters seem unable to recognise is that the while we keep waiting and waiting for CCS trials to launch, the evolution in renewable energy makes it not worth waiting for.

Virtually all industry- or scientific-community backed CCS roadmaps admit that it will be mid-decade before any large-scale demonstration projects come on-line, end-of-decade for the evidence to come in, and 2025 for any full scale roll-out. But it is precisely during this timeframe that renewables are pegged to reach grid-parity, that is, can generate electricity at the same amortised costs as fossil fuel stations can. In some markets, wind is already there. Even in the sun-challenged U.K., solar could hit grid-parity by 2017, according to a recent report from Ernst & Young.

Transitioning to a low-carbon energy supply will be a long and difficult process, but there’s no justification to claim it’s any easier retrofitting the fossil fuel infrastructure than a massive deployment of renewable supply would be. Just look at the numbers: the International Energy Agency’s CCS roadmap posits the need for 3,000 utility-scale CCS plants globally by 2050 — or one every three or four days if starting in 2020. Other research suggests that to move the volume of generated compressed CO2 requires an infrastructure equal to the one transporting the world’s extracted oil — a network that has taken multiple generations to build up. And this would only make a fraction of the GHG cuts science says is necessary to maintain a stable climatic system.

While government seemingly can’t give money away for CCS, funds for renewables fly off the shelves — unless government steps in to staunch the flow (as this one did when it accelerated the review of the feed-in tariff (FiT) scheme after proving too popular). Whether the review was justified because the FiT was too generous can be debated. But the costs for renewables continue to plunge due to year-on-year scale effects and efficiency improvements, while CCS sits at the far end of most greenhouse gas abatement cost curves — more costly than wind, solar, geothermal, or carbon sequestration though biological processes that actually work. It’s time for government to look at the facts and move its limited subsidies for low-carbon energy technologies to areas of most promise.

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Matthew Ulterino is an urban planning consultant based in London. He advises government and private clients on strategies and programs for reducing carbon emissions and risks from climate change in the built environment.

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