Authorities in Norway are engaged in a very exciting project designed to understand the potential for carbon storage happening under the sea along the Norwegian continental shelf. If doable, it would be first site of its type anywhere in the world, taking in waste carbon dioxide (CO2) from three different onshore industrial facilities in eastern Norway.
It is exciting because, should Statoil – the company at the forefront of the project’s development – get its storage solution right, it could receive CO2 from both Norwegian and other European emission sources, heralding the start of the world’s first carbon capture and storage (CCS) network across national borders.
The Norwegian project is one of many to have sprung up across the planet – from the In Salah CO2 Injection scheme in Algeria to the Quest CCS project in Canada – as governments and policymakers have attempted to create the right conditions for energy companies to invest in CCS technology, which has previously seen as something of a panacea to dealing with climate change.
In essence, CCS technologies trap emitted CO2 from coal and gas power plants and bury it underground so it cannot contribute to global warming. Capture technologies can separate the CO2 from gases produced in the electricity generation or industrial processes in one of three ways: pre-combustion capture, post-combustion capture and oxyfuel combustion.
The CO2 can then be transported via a pipe or by a ship ready to be stored in carefully selected geological rock formations located a few kilometres below the surface of the Earth, either onshore or, in the case of the Norwegian project, offshore.
While CCS has its limitations, it is said to be hugely important. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes CCS to be the most cost-effective way of dealing with climate-changing pollution. In fact, without it, the costs of stopping climate change could double, it says. It is a position with which the UK’s Committee on Climate Change agrees.
As such, the global market for CCS is set to grow from $2.253 billion in 2016 to reach $4.205 billion by 2022.
In the UK, a recent study by the Energy Technologies Institute into the UK’s potential for CCS adoption shows it has more than enough capability for CO2 storage sites to meet its climate change reduction needs to 2050 – and that most of these sites have already been fully or partially assessed for their suitability.
Based on the work done to date, the ETI believes there is now “no significant technical barrier that would limit the CCS industry developing at scale in the UK from a number of strategic shoreline hubs”.
The market for CCS development has endured a series of fits and starts, with current initial costs to implement CCS thought to be hindering growth. Scientists are worried about any unintended consequences of ‘breathing’ in carbon dioxide or building machines that react with greenhouse gases and sequester them; and research on the economics and effectiveness of CCS is fairly thin on the ground.
Meanwhile, environmental campaigners are concerned that focusing too much on the removal of CO2 will detract from the more pressing job of mitigating the release of polluting greenhouse gases in the first place. It is this conundrum that the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is currently exploring.
One country that isn’t holding back is China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. It has announced plans to open eight large-scale CCS facilities, the first of which has begun construction.
Beyond extracting CO2 and burying it underground, there are also moves to make something more useful out of waste emissions. For example, the Switzerland-based Climeworks will begin operating a facility near Zurich which compresses the CO2 it captures and uses it as a fertiliser to grow crops in greenhouses. It has grand plans to scale up during the next decade in order to capture 1% of global CO2 by 2025.
Regardless of the level of government intervention, investment, or number of pilot projects launched to prove the economic model of CCS, there is no doubt that capturing damaging CO2 and stopping it from sitting in our atmosphere is going to be a necessary part of the mix of approaches taken in our fight against global warming.