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The dark side of CCS

Proponents of Carbon-Capture-and-Storage (CCS) have long hailed the technology as the silver bullet that will enable the world to both fight climate change and keep using coal reserves. In Germany, the debate about the merits and pitfalls of this approach has once again surfaced. It highlights three key problems with using CCS to solve the climate crisis. Ordered from least to most damaging to the proponents of CCS, they can be summarised as: 1) The technological challenges in bringing the technology to large-scale applicability and the amount of money needed to reach this point. 2) The economic uncertainties over the competitiveness of CCS-generated energy vis-a-vis other forms of energy. 3) The opportunity costs of investing in CCS given the proven potential and fast growth rates of other renewable energy sources.

1) The technological challenges in bringing the technology to large-scale applicability and the amount of money needed to reach this point.

To deploy CCS technologies to a degree necessary to substantially reduce CO² emissions from coal-based energy generation will require not the creation of an infrastructure similar in scale and technological complexity to that of the oil- and gas-supply. Furthermore, it will require sustained investments by governments and energy producers in fitting and possibly retro-fitting existing plants. This combination of the costliness of the infrastructure necessary and the technological challenges involved means that the technology will be deployed too late, when the peak of coal-based energy production has already been reached, argues Richard Heinberg, from the Post Carbon Institute.

2) The economic uncertainties over the competitiveness of CCS-generated energy vis-a-vis other forms of energy

Caused in part by uncertainties about the costs and feasibility of CCS, in part by uncertainties about future supplies and cost changes of other renewables, there is considerable uncertainty about the economic prospects of CCS-generated energy. Richard Heinberg argues that deploying CCS will lead to strong increases in electricity prices, because a) CCS will be deployed after coal production has peaked, and b) because the technology lowers the efficiency of energy production.

Long-term considerations aside, in Germany doubts about the economics of CCS have appeared from unusual quarters. Johannes Lambertz, head of RWE Power, stated that with increasing construction costs and the potential costs for CCS the economic case for constructing coal-fired power stations was hard if to make.

3) The opportunity costs of investing in CCS given the proven potential and fast growth rates of other renewable energy sources.

While the points made above merely express scepticism about the chances of successfully fighting climate change using CCS technology, they don’t seem to justify to not at least try (we should try everything, after all, if we take climate change seriously). But this misses the crucial point of the case against CCS – opportunity costs: The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. The question is, would investment in other forms of renewable energy or measures not make more out of public and private investment?

Axel Berg, deputy energy spokesman of the SPD-Fraktion, is one making this argument. He argues that while using CCS sustains an outdated mode of energy creation based on large utilities running large power plants, the technology cannot easily be exported, especially not to developing countries, and shift attention away from policies focusing on energy efficiency measures and new renewables technologies, the only sustainable solutions to climate change.

Overall, the debate around CCS will continue, and it is likely that it will play at least some part in policies addressing climate change. But there are serious problems linked with its use – it is not the silver bullet.

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  1. Nick Dommett

    Excellent read – really lays out the major issues with CCS.

    I’d also add another one: that the use of depleted coal-, oil- and gas – reservoirs as competent storage containers for CO2 is as yet unproven. The pesky gas has a tendency to escape…

  2. Dan

    I’ve read various estimates of carbon prices at which CCS would be commercially viable, and they range from 30 to 75 euros. This, coupled with the technological/deployment challenges you mention, mean that we must not assume that CCS will contribute meaningfully to our mitigation targets. McKinsey’s work shows that CCS is an expensive sideshow – http://inbalance.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/europe-irrationally-inefficient/.

  3. Dafydd Elis

    On the other hand, the Inernational Energy Agency, whose analysis is usually fairly highly regarded when rcomes to energy policy, seem to take the idea of CCS very seriously indeed. In their scenarios for mitigation from energy use until 2050, for example, the contribution from CCS is as large as that of renewables.

    They would probably argue that confidence ranges for the permanence of geological storage are quite high (especially compared to other uncertainties in climate policy e.g.temperature increases over the next decades) – see their report on this issue here:
    http://www.cslforum.org/publications/documents/geostoragesafe.pdf . The insurance company Zurich recently launched a carbon sequestration liability insurance product, reflecting what must be a farily high level of confidence in our geological understanding of carbon storage.

    The uncertainties around CCS exist in the context of some fairly uncomfortable certainties, including the fact that coal remains an abundant and inexpensive fuel that is politically as well as economically attractive to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies (notably China).

    I agree with you completely that developing CCS technology on a commercial scale is a big challenge, and the costs of carbon abatement are high, especially at this early stage before the technology has matured and when the economic cost of carbon is relatiely low.

    But I’m not sure in practice that CCS is pushing money away from other technologies like renewables – the EU’s Climate and Energy Package and the Waxman-Markey Bill in the US both seem to treat the two issues quite seperately and if anything are more ambitious on renewables than on CCS.

    CCS isn’t a silver bullet – nothing is. But in a few decades’ time, when CCS is cheaper and the cost of carbon higher, we may look back at current (relatively small) investments in CCS R&D and consider it money very well spent.

  4. Dafydd Elis

    *sepArately. With apologies to anyone who is uppset by poor spelling.

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