Carbon capture and storage: a risk worth taking?

Senior reporter

The opening of a carbon capture pilot plant for research and training in central London this week suggests that some companies are preparing for the technology to become an important part of their business.

But the launch coincided with a report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) that reminds us just how many challenges still remain if we hope to use this technology to cut emissions while still burning fossil fuels.

Though we are some way from setting up a commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) system in the UK and many engineering challenges remain in doing this, listening to the report’s authors makes it seem likely that the biggest barriers won’t be technical. In fact, plants with a total annual capacity of 35.4m tonnes of CO2 capture are already operating round the world.

Instead the report highlighted a huge range of uncertainties surrounding the political and economic development of CCS that could hinder or even kill its progress in the UK, from getting financial incentives right to sorting out who’s liable if CO2 ends up accidentally being released into the atmosphere.

With so many chances for costly error in a process that could tie us to a strategy for the next few decades, you can’t help but wonder whether it’s all worth it. Indeed, one of the comments made about my article on the pilot plant questioned what the overall benefits of CCS were once you take into account the additional energy use.

The problem in answering this question is the same problem faced by government and industry in trying to plan CCS’s development. We won’t really know all the answers until we build one of these things, a point keenly stressed by the report’s authors.

There are other reasons the UK should pursue CCS at this stage. If we are going to use a mixture of nuclear and renewables in the next few decades, CCS-fitted fossil fuel power stations could provide a sensible way of meeting demand when the wind doesn’t blow during peak times.

There’s also great potential in our empty North Sea oil fields to store carbon dioxide — something that most other European nations don’t have — and so it could become a source of income for the UK, as could the technology and expertise involved. And, as UKERC researcher Prof Stuart Haszeldine of Edinburgh University pointed out, you could argue the UK has a moral responsibility to clear up the mess of carbon emissions it started with the Industrial Revolution.

But perhaps the strongest argument is still that we need to trial CCS so that we have the best range of options available to us and can make the most informed decision about our energy future. Setting up an industry race between nuclear, renewables and CCS could help avoid rash commitment to costly vanity projects, said the report’s editor, Prof Jim Watson of Sussex University.

‘That idea of the race puts pressure on there to keep the costs down by saying it’s up to industry to choose which technologies make the most sense to meet the overall policy goals, which are emissions reduction, keeping the lights on, affordability etc. It’s not a policy goal that we must have CCS in the long run; it’s one of the suite of options there.’

For all the potential pitfalls, the report managed to propose a pathway to CCS success, drawing from examples such as flue gas desulphurisation technology and the development of nuclear reactors. But we need to take a long-term view and not close down options too early.

‘The race timescale is over decades. This is a marathon not a sprint,’ said Haszeldine. ‘So although government is trying to set out this competition between different technologies, they’re not all starting from the same starting line … There’s the possibility for technological failure to discover it really is a high cost but what the pathways also show is that there is plenty of opportunity for the government to mess it up on the way by making premature decisions.’

Listening to this, it’s no surprise that the researchers welcomed the government’s decision to start a new CCS competition after the failure of a previous one, this time opening it up to all technologies instead of focusing on a specific niche.

However, the next opportunity for a government mess-up is rapidly approaching, they argued, in the form of electricity market reform. A plan to provide the rest of the funding needed for the competition’s projects through energy bills needs to happen if companies are to get the financial backing they need.

But the detail has so far been thin and reforms have to be passed in enough time for companies to put their plans together for the competition, said Watson. ‘If they can’t get that coordination to work, the risk is you end up with no projects.’