There was a time, a few years ago, where you couldn’t trip over without a major party politician singing the praises of carbon capture and storage. You may remember the fanfare with which the Global CCS Institute was launched by Kevin Rudd. The political buzz around the technology has disappeared, but the institute is very much up and running. As it turns out, one of the more useful things it does is produce an annual report on the Global Status of CCS, of which the latest was released earlier in October. It’s interesting, to say the least, to contrast the fuss that surrounded the technology – both from proponents and detractors – to what has actually been achieved.
Geological sequestration of CO2 is real, is happening now, and will be deployed on an industrial scale in Australia in the not too distant future with the Gorgon project in Western Australia. Similar technology has already been used to sequester CO2 in Norway, and at an experimental scale in the Otways in Victoria. These projects are controversial – indeed, we’ve discussed them before on LP.
But there are more fundamental problems. To reduce the risks of leakage and other environmental problems to acceptable levels, a lot of geological investigation is required. Not only is it costly, it’s time-consuming. As the executive summary puts it:
Information from project proponents indicates that storage assessment and characterisation requires considerable investment and can have long lead times of five to 10 years or more for a greenfield storage site, depending on the existing available geologic information about the site. Policymakers need to factor these lead times into their assessment of a project’s progress. Projects that have not yet commenced active storage assessment may have a
challenge to achieve operation before 2020.
Worse, the economic case for CCS remains lousy, even with fairly high carbon prices. The cost of abatement is estimated at somewhere upwards of $75 per tonne for coal-based CCS projects, and upwards of $100 per tonne for gas-fired electricity with CCS. That’s pretty awful, even if it’s still cheaper than abatement from solar power.
I would disagree with those who argue that we should abandon CCS projects entirely. In the long term, we may need it to sequester some of the CO2 already in the atmosphere, given that even today’s levels have unacceptable long-term consequences. Furthermore, steel and cement making will need to continue indefinitely, and all the renewable energy in the world isn’t going to remove the carbon from the chemistry of those materials.
But given the slow progress – in the the very words of an organization set up to promote the technology – the odds of it being a realistic retrofit for current coal-fired power stations are becoming ever longer.
As a postcript, a CCS project in Britain recently bit the dust, though as the Guardian points out, other UK CCS projects are continuing.