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UKERC says CCS faces a tough road ahead

19 April 2012

Government plans to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, which I reported in a previous leader, have received only a cautious welcome from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).

A new report* from this body, published only last week, warns of the risk of choosing “inferior technology” in the rush to develop commercial scale facilities, and says that CCS deployment is a “marathon, not a sprint”.

The report - Carbon capture and storage: realising the potential? - is the culmination of a two-year UKERC funded research project, and its publication comes very close on the heels of DECC's announcement earlier this month of a new long-term strategy for CCS, including the re-launch of the UK’s £1bn competition to develop commercial scale CCS projects.

Lead author, Professor Jim Watson, Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex, says we still don’t know when CCS technologies will be technically proven at full scale, and whether their costs will be competitive with other low-carbon options.

While the tenor of the report suggests a degree of caution in progressing from demonstrator to commercial plant, Professor Watson still believes it is vital that the government’s commitment to these technologies leads to several full scale CCS projects as soon as possible. “Only through such learning by doing will we know whether CCS is a serious option for the future, and how the technical, economic and legal uncertainties currently facing investors can be overcome,” he says.

CCS is by no means the first measure of its kind, in terms of macro environmental pollution mitigation. There are lessons to be drawn from history, not least among them being the establishment of a viable flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) technology, which had its origins here in the UK as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. The first major FGD plant anywhere in the world was installed at Battersea Power Station in London in the early 1930s and it really wasn’t until the late 1990s that the majority of power stations around the world had some form of FGD in place.

It is to be hoped that CCS development will not suffer so long a gestation period. But even if rapid progress is made with the UK’s re-launched demonstration programme, which aims to have CCS plants operational later this decade, difficult choices will remain for government and other decision makers, say the authors.

The report identifies four key areas where such choices need to be made:

- deciding whether to keep options open, or close them down. The French government focused on one technological variety early on for its nuclear programme. Doing this for CCS may help speed up development, but there is a risk of picking inferior technology. The authors caution that it is too early for government and industry to close down on a particular variant of CCS technology. They welcome the plans for several substantial demonstration projects which will help to identify which variants of CCS technology can be scaled up successfully;

- designing financial support for effective CCS demonstration and deployment. A regulatory approach that makes CCS compulsory for all fossil plants will only work if the technology is more advanced, and the additional costs can be passed onto consumers. CCS technologies are not yet at this stage. In the mean time, the government should ensure that industry maximises efficiency and minimises costs of new CCS plants. History shows that not all demonstrations will perform as expected, and government should ensure that lessons are learned from successes and failures;

- CCS deployment is a marathon, not a sprint. Developing new energy technologies can take a long time, and the process is often far from smooth. The report shows that costs do not necessarily fall in the way supporters hope – and can rise for several years before they come down, as technologies are scaled up. This requires patience. Government also needs to ensure it has an independent capability to assess costs to inform future decisions about whether to continue with public funding for CCS or to divert resources to other low carbon options;

- dealing with storage liabilities. The report highlights lessons from UK nuclear waste management policy to show just how complex liability arrangements for CO2 storage can be. For CCS, a balance needs to be struck between limiting liabilities for investors and protecting the interests of future taxpayers. Agreements will be needed on where this balance should lie, and what arrangements are needed to fund and insure against potential liabilities.

Professor Watson wants options to be kept open in the government’s CCS commercialisation programme. And while he welcomes the fact that the government has learned from the mistakes of the past, and now plans to support a number of CCS technologies, he says there is a long way to go before CCS is a reality at full scale. Complex negotiations with industry lie ahead; and as the National Audit Office argued recently, such negotiations require substantial capacity and skills within government in order to bring them to a successful conclusion.

CCS in academia
Meanwhile, as government departments and agencies wring their hands over the future of CCS, one academic institution has embraced it with some panache. A new carbon capture pilot plant at Imperial College London, which is believed to be the most sophisticated of its kind in any academic institution worldwide, threw open its doors for wider public viewing last week. Costing £10m and having the benefit of nearly £1m worth of state-of-the-art instrumentation and process control technology donated and installed by ABB, this facility is expected to provide a real-world, hands-on education experience for thousands of undergraduate engineers over its predicted 25 year life span.

In addition to its important educational role, the plant will also provide a summer school for engineering students from around the world, as well as a laboratory for Imperial academics working on CCS technology and a location for the energy and chemical engineering sector to train staff in the capital. Plant director, Dr Daryl Williams, said that, in contrast to spending time in seminars and lectures, students will have control over a working plant at the heart of their college, enabling them to solve the problems that engineers face every day in the real world.

ABB has also signed a ten-year agreement with Imperial College London to support the pilot plant, as well as conferring a series of sponsorships for Imperial’s chemical engineering undergraduates. ABB’s UK general manager for the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, Martin Grady says that by investing in the pilot plant and the bursaries, ABB is effectively investing in its own future, making sure that the company will have ready access to a stream of bright young engineers. “One of our biggest problems is finding enough suitably qualified engineers to fill the ever growing range of opportunities we can offer,” he says. “Obviously if engineering in the UK flourishes, then we flourish too.”

The 30m high plant at Imperial can separate up to 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per day from other harmless emissions in a continuous process that sees the gases remixed and separated again and again. The process involves the absorption of CO2 in a column containing a monoethanolamine (MEA) solution, which is transferred to an adjacent stripping column where the MEA is heated and the CO2 condensed for recycling within the plant. The plant is highly instrumented in terms of temperature, pressure and flow parameters, and has a fully automated gas sampling and analysis system. The entire process is controlled by a fully functional ABB 800XA distributed control system.

Les Hunt

*The UKERC report is available for download here

Reader Comments:

With regard to my previous leader on this subject, newsletter reader Nick Cook had the following comment to make on Edward Davey's assertion that "the potential rewards from CCS are immense, bringing as much as £6.5bn per year to the UK economy".  I am pleased to reproduce Nick's comments in full here:

This will only happen if the Chinese fail to commercialise DCFC (Direct Carbon Fuel Cell) technology, but considering the Chinese have 5 universities working in parallel on this technology which is not too different from some high temperature fuel cell technologies that are already viable, I think this is unlikely. Further more I would suggest that this demonstrates that the Chinese have probably realised the huge potential of this technology, both commercially and for CO2 abatement.

What is DCFC and what are it’s (many) benefits? The DCFC is a fuel cell that converts carbon (e.g. from coal) and oxygen (from air) directly into electricity in basically the same way as hydrogen fuel cells work, except the waste is CO2 instead of H2O. Compared to conventional coal fired power stations with added CCS, DCFC technology would provide 2.5 to 3 times higher energy conversion efficiency (~30% vs ~80%), probably cheaper capital costs than coal (even without CCS) and importantly CO2 capture built in at no extra cost, the waste stream from the fuel cells is pure CO2. DCFCs also have a fast response time, a feature required for coping both with load/demand peaking and also short term generation variations from RE (renewable energy) sources, particularly solar and wind, which is something that nuclear definitely can’t do.

Even if we just converted coal power plants to DCFC without CC we could cut our emissions by more than 50% whilst we concentrate on developing mechanisms to deal with the waste CO2, note I state mechanisms and not specifically storage or sequestration. I am not alone in considering that storage is not the best solution for waste CO2, in fact the CO2Chem Organisation has been established to develop CCU (Carbon Capture and Utilisation) mechanisms instead and, like me, consider CCS to be CO2 dumping or landfill.

From my current understanding of the development stage of these two technologies, CCS and DCFC, I would not want to wager which one will reach commercial maturity first. In any case, as soon as DCFC is demonstrated that it can become commercially viable technology, and I fairly certain it will, then the UK’s version will be rendered commercially non-viable. Ed Davey believes that the Chinese and other countries will still have so many coal fired power stations operating that they will want to buy our CCS solution. In fact he actually made this point to me in reply to the above information when I raised the topic at the APGTF (Advanced Power Generation Technology Forum) meeting in March, at which ED Davey launched/re-launched these CCS competitions. However, because of the near tripling in efficiency and the corresponding savings in fuel costs I believe, based on some ball park calculations I have done for a 100MW power plant, it would be cheaper to pull down a brand new coal power station and replace it with DCFC technology than bolt on CCS.

Now I don’t believe, taking the above into account, any fossil fuel thermal power plant operator is going to seriously consider buying UK CCS equipment if DCFC technology is available, and to rub salt in the wound the sad fact is that, I’ve been told, the UK used to be the leader in DCFC technology, probably before the coal/power industry was pulverised, or was that privatised!

At a more fundamental level CCS is essentially landfill for fossil power generation waste and I wonder whether it is sustainable at a meaningful level for a meaningful time, how long it will be before the EU introduces a CO2 landfill tax? Far better, I believe, is to find a use for the CO2, either; CCU (as mentioned above) which can combine/incorporate CO2 into other products such as building materials and plastics or, CCR  (Carbon Capture and Recycling), where the CO2 produced from power generation is reprocessed back into fuel for reuse using RE resources with either bio or synthetic reactors. The latter approach also has the potential to solve one of the big challenges inhibiting the adoption large scale RE power generation, i.e. massive scale energy storage; carbon based solid and liquid chemical fuels (that don’t require cooling or compression) are really the only practical way of storing utility scale energy supplies on medium to long term (weekly to seasonal) time scales.

Conclusion, our Government are very probably wasting well over £1Bn of tax payers’ money following their current CCS route.
Finally, in answer to the article head line, “CCS is back on the agenda, but its viability is still in question?” I would say, It Very Definitely Is!

From Mr Steve Avery:

This could be the solution to CO2 emissions, convert it to a usable fuel, and improve its storage ability as well!  See Link

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