By Dr Niall Mac Dowell, Centre for Environmental Policy
For centuries, all of the world’s economies have been underpinned by fossil fuels. Historically, this has primarily been oil and coal, but since the mid-1980s natural gas has become increasingly important. Over the course of the last decades, there has been an increasing focus on electricity generation from renewable sources, and since about 1990 carbon capture and storage (CCS) has become an important part of the conversation around the mitigation of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The role of CCS in addressing our GHG mitigation targets is clear and unambiguous – see for example the IEA CCS technology roadmaps which show that by 2050, almost 8 GtCO2/yr needs to be sequestered via CCS; a cumulative of 120 GtCO2 in the period from 2015 to 2050. Tellingly, this means that we need to see real action on the commercial scale deployment of CCS globally by 2015 such that we have at least 30 installations around the world actively capturing and sequestering CO2 from a range of industrial and power-generation plants. Currently, there are 8 CCS projects around the world which are actively capturing and sequestering CO2 – primarily in North America (Shute Creek, Val Verde, Enid Fertilizer and Century Plant in the US and the Weyburn-Midale project in Canada) and Europe (Sleipner and Snøhvit in Norway), although Algeria have also been operating the In Salah project since 2004.
However, it is notable that none of these plants are capturing CO2 emitted from power stations; rather they are capturing from industrial sources from which CO2 arises in a stream suitable for transport and storage. This is particularly important as CO2 emissions from power generation represent the single largest source of global emissions.
For this reason, it is particularly encouraging to note the UK’s leadership position in this area. Following from our signing into law the mandate to mitigate by 80% our GHG emissions by 2050, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have recently signed agreements for Front End Engineering Design (FEED) studies for two commercial scale CCS projects; the Peterhead project and the White Rose project.
These are two really exciting projects, both of which represent real world firsts. The Peterhead project is a collaboration between Shell and SSE and is a retrofit of post-combustion capture plant to an existing power plant. This project is intended to operate in a base-load fashion and follows on from the Boundary Dam CCS project in Canada which also uses Shell technology. However, a key distinction between the Boundary Dam and Peterhead projects is the CO2 source; Boundary Dam is a coal-fired power plant whereas Peterhead is a gas-fired power plants. From an engineering perspective, these plants present significantly distinct CCS challenges, and therefore the Peterhead project represents a real step forward.
It is, of course, important to emphasise the importance of the Boundary Dam project. Returning to the IEA’s CCS technology roadmaps, we can see that CCS on coal-fired power plants is of vital global importance; potentially contributing to about 40% of emission mitigation in both OECD and non-OECD countries.
The White Rose project on the other hand is an example of oxy-combustion technology applied to a coal-fired power plant. This project is a collaboration between Alstom, Drax Power and BOC. Here, instead of performing a retrofit, the White Rose project is building a brand new, state-of-the-art 450MWe super-critical power plant which has the capacity to co-fire biomass and coal which, when combined with CCS can lead to the plant producing carbon negative electricity. Importantly, the White Rose plant will have an emphasis on the generation of flexible power; something which is key as we have more and more intermittent renewable energy in our energy system.
Thus, 2014 is the year where CCS on power generation becomes a reality. Given the fact that fossil fuels will remain a vital part of the world’s energy landscape for some time to come, with some sources indicating that they will account for over 66% of the world’s energy by 2100, it is almost impossible to over emphasise the importance of our ability to utilise them in an environmentally benign and sustainable way. For this reason, I believe 2014 represents a pivotal year; one which, in time, we will look back on as being the dawn of the age of sustainable fossil fuels.