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Too little, too slow


Britain needs to push ahead with CCS now if it is not to miss its targets and lose out in the technological race. Ted Nield reports.

Geoscientist Online Wednesday 9 September 2009

CCS power is the only way to burn fossil fuel with lower emissions, and will be essential to fill in electricity generation gaps on weeks when wind does not blow across the EU, Professor Stuart Haszeldine (University of Edinburgh) told the British Association Annual Festival of Science in Surrey University yesterday. CCS is part of the UK plan for a low carbon future, but is progressing too slowly, to be commercially proven when needed, he said.

“ The UK is uniquely advantaged to exploit CCS, with interest from power, transport, and storage companies. Our group has made a comprehensive first evaluation of offshore UK storage, showing that 100 years of not just UK, but also European CO2, could be stored profitably. Pilot injection could start immediately, and is needed to solve longer-term capacity uncertainties."

CCS is seen as a critical saviour technology that can enable industrial nations to reduce greenhouse emissions with minimal behaviour change. CCS is said to be a 'bridge' into a more sustainable future. Switching the construction metaphor, CCS can be seen as one of the four pillars for clean energy - which the UK Government believe to be essential in its low carbon Transition Plan. CCS could rapidly and cheaply reduce more than one third of the UK's current CO2 emissions. So, how will we build that bridge, and will it be ready when it is needed, from 2020?

“Fossil fuels are unrealistically cheap because the atmosphere and oceans provide waste disposal at no charge” says Haszeldine. Emissions of CO2 from coal and gas combustion are increasing faster than anticipated, and the effects of ocean acidification and climate change are already starting to become apparent. Carbon capture and storage is the only available remedy to make large-scale direct reductions of emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

Although CO2 capture has been undertaken at industrial scale since the 1970s, CCS facilities fitted to power plants are only currently emerging, with demonstrations being installed at one-tenth size scale. However a UK government programme to create and develop the CCS option commercially will not produce these demonstration power plants before 2020, Haszeldine told the Association.
bsaf “Our compilations of rival projects worldwide suggest that this will be too late for the UK to gain advantage in a new global industry particularly as the USA is now progressing very rapidly, and China intends to have two demonstrations operating several years before the UK. CCS is also predicted to provide a low cost remedy to electricity generation: UK citizens will be paying an increased price for CCS electricity, and a greater price for home-grown renewable electricity; both are needed for reliable electricity by 2020. CCS is not available, and needs to be accelerated” Haszeldine says.

CCS will probably be an essential compliment to the variable output from renewable electricity sources such as wind power. Contrary to initial evaluations using average wind speeds (which suggested that the wind would always blow somewhere in the UK) there appear to be infrequent troughs in wind power. Weather records show a cold week in January 2000 when no winds blew across the UK, matched by a hot week in June 2009 when there was similarly low wind activity. To guarantee electricity supply to industry and the public in these periods, either we must develop much more energy storage, or keep a full fleet of coal and gas power plants, fully equipped with CCS, standing ready for action.

Haszeldine believes that the UK has analysed its policy needs well, and has put in place the necessary regulatory framework for CCS. However, it has yet to develop a method for CCS licensing and, critically, he sees none of the sense of urgency (backed by government investment) that will be required to make this new industry a reality. Historical analogies teach us two lessons. First, time spans of 10-20 years will be needed to develop and fit new carbon capture equipment; and second, that strong legislation will be needed to make it happen; voluntary action in competitive market is not enough, Haszeldine believes.

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