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.