The EU has provided 1 billion euros in funding in order to leverage another 0.9 billion in private investments for a major new carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in the UK. Craig Morris investigates why Energiewende’s supporters are not more enthusiastic.
Recently, I posted a critique of CCS that drew a sharp response from a supporter of the technology, who essentially accused me/this website of “doing the dirty work” of conventional utilities in blocking a way of making our dirtiest source of energy, coal, clean(er).
His best point is that CCS is not “only applicable to coal and lignite,” but also to industry, natural gas, and biomass. Yet, as I pointed out in that article, CCS is a well-known technology in the oil & gas sector, where it is used to produce more oil & gas. For industry and biomass, the question is what will be done with the carbon.
But first, let’s be perfectly clear about this: Germany’s energy transition has a couple of goals, but making fossil fuel clean(er) is not one of them. Leaving carbon in the ground (as opposed to putting some of it back in) is. My reader charges that the benefits of CCS “all fit well with historic German thinking in respect to industrial ecologies and synergies between sectors” – but he forgets the main aspect of the Energiewende: energy democracy.
In Germany, communities get to say what goes on in their neighborhoods. German citizens are not convinced that anything, including CO2, can be stored safely forever, so communities don’t want carbon storage nearby. If the CO2 ever leaks out in significant quantities, people will suffocate.
You can call this NIMBYism and say that normal people don’t know what they’re talking about, but the charge doesn’t stick in Germany. The nuclear sector tried this approach, and the outcome is well known as the “nuclear phaseout.” The German public has proven energy experts wrong before. The success of renewables policy in Germany itself is based on conventional energy experts saying, “go ahead and let them build their little wind generators and solar roofs – it won’t make any difference anyway.” This outcome is also well known; Reuters has spoken of “utility dinosaurs.”
Democratic input is weaker in my home country, the United States. To take one example, in Florida, hearings on cutting energy conservation programs (Florida has excess generation capacity) were recently closed to the public because, according to Think Progress, the subject was considered “too technical for public participation.” Compare that to Germany, where beer brewers are successfully helping to block the rollout of full-scale fracking out of concern for the impact on groundwater.
In Europe, the precautionary principle is important. The technology in question has to be proven safe. In the US, for instance, the burden of proof is the reverse – citizens must prove that a technology is unsafe. A good example is the EU’s REACH directive, which restricts more than 1,000 substances, only a few of which are also banned in the US.
Experts might charge that fracking is perfectly safe or that CO2 reservoirs used in CCS will never leak, but in Germany the experts must convince the public – or, as then-Foreign Secretary Joschka Fischer put it to Donald Rumsfeld when explaining his skepticism about the need to March into Iraq, “you have to make the case.”
The case for CCS
The main argument for CCS is that we need coal, so it needs to be made clean. This idea implies that a largely renewable energy supply will not work in due time. CCS thus contradicts a main tenant of the Energiewende.
The second part of that argument implies that coal power can be made clean. But CCS does not exist as the technology’s proponents describe it:
- Carbon storage is not available everywhere. Many CCS projects inject the CO2 into oil wells that are either depleted or depleting. In the latter case, carbon storage is used simultaneously to get more carbon out of the ground, so why bother? But for CCS to be widespread, CO2 storage would need to be available in close proximity to coal reserves (or at least coal plants), not depleted oil reserves.
- It is not affordable. When CCS is added to a coal plant, the price of coal power is higher than the price of renewable electricity. The only reason you would then want to have coal power is for backup capacity, and there are less expensive low-carbon options.
The new White Rose project (formerly the UK OXY CCS project; a marketing expert seems to have been hired) seems to fulfill that second requirement – the carbon will indeed be pumped into depleted oil wells without making additional trapped oil available (see this overview at Carbon Brief). That makes White Rose a bit of an exception. See for yourself on this interactive map of CCS projects worldwide, which vastly overstates the number of CCS projects by including projects with no storage at all.
What about affordability?
I wasn’t able to find any statistics for the UK (if you know of any, please drop us a comment below), but the US EIA offers estimates (XLS) showing that a new coal plant has an overnight capital cost of 3,246 USD per kilowatt, with CCS bringing that amount up to 5,227 USD. CCS thus adds almost two thirds to the upfront price tag. Operation and maintenance costs with CCS are more than twice as great, however, so we can roughly say that CCS doubles the cost of coal power.
White Rose is a 426 MW project. The EU has provided a billion euros in order to leverage an additional 0.9 billion in private funding, putting the total at 1.9 billion euros. The project includes a new 426 MW plant co-fired with coal and biomass, so the upfront price per kilowatt is 4,460 euros, equivalent to around 6,000 USD at current exchange rates – roughly 15 percent more expensive than the EIA’s estimate.
Maybe CCS deserves a shot (we argued the same in order to bring down the cost of solar, which worked) and maybe it has a role to play in industry particularly, but you see my skepticism.