Carbon capture and storage holds the key to a low carbon future

Glynn Williams, CEO at Silixa argues that CCS is vital to a low carbon future but requires investment and regulatory framework to make it a reality

When we engage with the overriding messages from the environmental groups, we hear an argument that the fossil fuel sector and industrial sectors that emit carbon are the enemy. It is hard to deny the fact that these industries are at the root of greenhouse gas emissions, but they are also the bedrock on which modern society is built. If you strip away all the concrete, steel, goods made from petrochemicals along with the uses of fossil fuels the world would never have developed to such a high standard of living.

The preferred view is that all energy should come from renewable sources, and any industry that emits carbon should stop production, but that is not viable. The recent war in Ukraine has highlighted the fragility of European energy security and the need for fossil fuel generation to continue. When it comes to industry, some sectors, such as steel and concrete production and refining and processing facilities, are crucial to our way of life but emit large volumes of CO2. The only viable solution is carbon capture and storage (CCS) to decarbonise these sectors, which means that CCS now becomes part of the energy value chain

The International Energy Agency (IEA), points to CCS as a crucial technology that will play a critical part in achieving net-zero targets. It is also the only viable solution to tackle emissions from heavy industry and remove carbon from the atmosphere. However, although recent progress is encouraging, the planned pipeline of projects would fall well short of delivering the 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 capture capacity deployed by 2030 in their Net Zero by 2050 scenario.

There is a third string to the CCS bow in removing carbon that is already in the atmosphere. A vital part of the value chain for direct air capture (DAC) technologies that extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Is the ability to permanently store that CO2 in deep geological formations, thereby achieving negative emissions of carbon removal.

In the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, direct air capture technologies capture more than 85 Mt of CO2 in 2030 and around 980 Mt CO2 in 2050, requiring a significant and accelerated scale-up from almost 0.01 Mt CO2 today. Currently, 18 direct air capture facilities operate in Canada, Europe, and the United States. The first large-scale direct air capture plant of up to 1 Mt CO2/year is in advanced development and is expected to operate in the United States by the mid-2020s.

When you consider its importance to reducing emission you would have thought that it would be in full swing today. It is not and the reason is two-fold. First, there is a lack of a coherent regulatory environment. The second is the scarcity of incentives currently available. Indeed, we are rapidly getting better visibility of the incentives available, the Inflation Reduction Act has gone a fair way, but they are still insufficient.

Despite the desire to create a sustainable business landscape for energy and industry, there will always be financial constraints in implementing a technology that is both expensive and can harm the operating efficiency of a process. The current view is that storing carbon will cost up to $80 Mt. Therefore, at some point, the incentives must rise and be readily available to meet the storage cost. 

The challenge is that the environmental lobby see CCS as support for continued hydrocarbon  production . Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no real alternative if we are to ensure energy security around the world in the short and probably medium-term. There is also no way that we can continue to produce the materials that we require without capturing the carbon that is emitted.

Then there are those who accept that we need the technology but question its safety. Storing CO2 involves the injection of captured CO2 into a deep underground geological reservoir of porous rock overlaid by an impermeable layer of rocks, which seals the reservoir and prevents the upward migration or leakage of CO2 to the atmosphere. Even though most formations have previously held hydrocarbons there are still concerns that, over time, leakage may occur. To quell such fears, effective monitoring is vital. The published numbers around the cost of monitoring storage are between $1-4 per Mt. Not only is the technology there to monitor CO2 storage and ensure that it remains in place, but it is also a cost-effective approach because it is a relatively small component of the total cost of capturing and storing.

To achieve our goals, the government and society must find the cash to allow CCS to operate with immediacy; otherwise, we will not succeed. If it takes more than one generation to implement CCS, the effects will be irreversible.

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