Carbon Capture Technology: revolution or sugarcoated promise?

by Victor Dupasquier
Image: Andreas Felske / Unsplash

Capturing CO2 in the atmosphere, or directly in the factories, and mixing it with hydrogen to create a fuel that is carbon neutral. Doesn’t it sound like an amazing solution to climate change? Let’s put this Carbon Capture theory into practice.

According to the IPCC, we were supposed to capture 4.900 megatons of CO2 per year by today using Carbon Capture technologies. Yet, in 2020, the global CC capacity was only 40megatons per year; this is far from the goal of eliminating the 43.1 billion tons of CO2 emitted in 2019.

So why is such a breakthrough technology not living up to its potential? Like many cutting-edge inventions, it is expensive. Estimates suggest that capturing one ton of CO2 using existing technology costs between $60 and $70. To contextualize, we will take the example of South Korea; the country has considered using CCS to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. For this technology to be applicable to power generation, without South Korean having to pay astronomical electricity bills, the cost per ton would have to be reduced to a maximum of $30. However, due to the importance of environmental issues, it should have been backed by governments regardless of cost. States could have funded the first Carbon Capture and storage facilities until they become rentable. In fact, they did. But despite billions of dollars in public spending, there are only about 20 large-scale CCS projects operating in the world today, while the International Energy Agency was expecting 5 times more. What is the reason for the under- implementation of CCS? It’s simple, all the projects turned into a fiasco.

In 2016, the Australian government granted the energy corporation Chevron the permission to extract gas on Barrow Island – a Class A Nature Reserve – on the condition that the company will bury some of the carbon dioxide thanks to CCS technology. Three years and $60 million of public funding later, the system, that captured 0 tons of CO2 until 2019, became clogged up by sand. Today, the project has been in production for 5½ years, but there has not been a day when all elements of the CO2 injection system worked at the same time. If Gorgon captured 30% of its target this year, it captured in fact only 1.8% of the total emissions of the plant for the past 5 years.

“[T]here are still no projects operating anywhere in the world that have delivered CCS on time, on budget, or in the quantities promised”

Chevron concedes CCS failures at Gorgon, seeks deal with WA regulators, Remedy Economy, July 2021

We can also turn to the failure of the Kemper Project in Mississippi, the centerpiece of President Obama’s climate plan. What was called the biggest coal carbon-capture plant worldwide was in fact three years late, $4 billion over its projected budget, and shut down in 2017. According to Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter, “there are still no projects operating anywhere in the world that have delivered CCS on time, on budget, or in the quantities promised”.

Yet, some silver linings ought to be pointed out. While the Kemper plant used “pre-combustion technology” that converts fuel into a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and CO2 before burning the hydrogen, others use “post-combustion technology” that captures CO2 from exhaust gases thanks to a solvent. It’s the case of NRG’s Petra Nova Carbon Capture project in Texas, which was one of the biggest of its kind. Although it was mothballed last year, the installation certainly served its primary purpose: to enhance CCS techs. If the plummeting prices of oil during the pandemic did not help the CC industry thrive, using its carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), Petra Nova showed that post-combusting technologies could be soon a major tool to reduce the share of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Indeed, the recurring outages attributable to the capture plant itself do not seem to flag up any show-stopping issues with the new technology, and the unplanned downtime fell steadily over the three years. It even reached 95% of the target of total CO2 planned for 2019. Besides, Mitsubishi declared a drop of 30% of the cost of some of his Carbon Capture methods following the project. Thereby, if the price of oil rises – which is likely due to a long-term mismatch between supply and demand – and the cost of CC techs decreases, it could create a circle in which CCS becomes more and more rentable. Especially as it spreads over the world and benefits from economies of scale. At least it must be, because over the four pathways to net-zero drafted by IPCC, three have CCS at their hearth. According to John Oakey, professor of energy technology at Cranfield University, “we need to go from 26 facilities to 2,000 by 2050” to meet climate targets. As governments, just like oil and gas companies, are more proactive on their emissions reduction targets, it is likely that CCS will become a privileged solution. But will it be enough? I will not venture to make the same optimistic predictions as the scientists of 20 years ago.

In any case, Carbon Capture remains largely a greenwash designation, used by big companies as an excuse to produce more thanks to public funding. However, some processes are more reliable than others and if the technology was improved, it could be a major tool for fighting climate change. Elon Musk knows this as he will give away a total of $100 million through his XPrize Carbon Removal contest to anyone who can provide an efficient way of capturing carbon dioxide. In the meantime, using biological removal strategies such as preventing deforestation or changing farm practices appears to be a wiser solution.

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