Government plans to provide funds for carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects have prompted one critic to ask if there will be a return on its investment.

The government recently laid out its plans for the UK to develop up to four carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects. Some critics believe the high cost of infrastructure required to implement the technology means the government will struggle to achieve a return on its investment.

Energy secretary Ed Miliband told the House of Commons on 23 April that it would take ‘billions of pounds’ to build new coal-fired power plants equipped with carbon-capture technology. The captured gas would then be transported through a massive pipe infrastructure across the country to proposed CO2 storage wells in the North Sea.

Graham Hillier, director of low carbon energy at the Centre for Process Innovation, said proposals to store all of this captured CO2 in North Sea wells is laudable but wastes its potential use.

He said: ‘It’s not productive infrastructure. It’s not creating any value for you, it’s just a cost. We need to find a way of using the CO2 for something that can create value.’

Hillier suggested that some of a power plant’s carbon emissions could be diverted to on-site bioreactors that would grow algae on a large industrial scale. The algae could then be used to produce pharmaceutical products, biofuel or hydrogen.

In 2008, Hillier was involved with a study commissioned by global engineering firm Arup that looked into the feasibility of such technology. The report quoted MIT research demonstrating that bubbling a power plant’s flue gases through an algae bioreactor could reduce CO2 emissions by 82 per cent on sunny days and 50 per cent on cloudy days, and cut nitrogen oxides by 85 per cent on a 24-hour basis. The Arup report also mentioned one algae system, installed at a 1,000MW power plant in the south western area of the US in 2005, that recently entered its pilot phase.

Beyond algae growth, Hillier said there are also studies figuring ways to make polymers out of CO2. The overall idea, he said, is to try and use as much CO2 as possible for valuable commodities before it gets sent for storage.

Hillier said these measures will be necessary because it will be impossible to bury all the CO2 emitted in the world.

In terms of individual carbon footprint, he said: ‘Everybody emits on average 3.5 tons of carbon, which works out to 24 billion tons of CO2 a year. That’s quite a lot to bury.’

Others believe the UK will only be able to lead with CCS technology if the government provides enough funds to jump-start it. Some believe the initial £90 million the government has proposed to pay for upfront studies and the €180m (£160m) from the European Union for the first project to get the go-ahead is not enough.

Joan MacNaughton, senior vice-president of power and environmental policies at Alstom, said it will cost at least £500m to construct one CCS demonstration plant. It will cost up to £2bn if the government wants to go ahead with proposals for four demonstration plants. Once the technology goes through the demonstration phase to commercial phase, she said, costs will go down.

MacNaughton added: ‘Obviously, like all technologies, the price comes down over time. The key challenge for the policymakers is to get the right policy framework and the right financial incentives to make CCS a commercial viability.’

Siobhan Wagner