Yesterday I was pleased to attend the prophetically titled event ‘A new age for coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS)’ which took place at the Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining in London. Organised by the Society of Chemical Industry, the workshop combined results from fundamental CCS research and large-scale projects with some enlightening perspectives on the future potential for the technology in the UK and the political action required for it to progress.
The high-profile debate in the UK over rising energy prices and future energy shortages was highlighted as indicative of a wider transition in the UK and Europe to a ‘fourth wave’ of energy policy, in which emphasis is turning from carbon abatement to energy security and affordability. In this climate it is possible that coal will make a resurgence as an energy source, provided it can be equipped with CCS. Although relatively costly technology, IEA forecasts estimate a considerable economic saving can be made if CCS is included in the mix of technologies harnessed to reach carbon emissions targets. Despite this, CCS development has so far struggled to gather steam due to a lack of the consistent political support which is crucial for such high capital investment projects to take off. A report from the White Rose capture project at Drax power station, one of the two UK projects shortlisted for significant government support, gave some reason to believe that this situation may change. The 450 MW gross oxyfuel project is about to embark on risk reduction and FEED studies which would see it shovel-ready towards the end of 2015.
Like all UK projects, White Rose will make use of North Sea storage, and the huge worth of this asset to the UK was emphasised by a speaker from the University of Edinburgh. The space available dwarfs that of other European nations and could also include the potential for enhanced oil recovery in the oil fields off northern Scotland. However, long-term policy and urgent action is again required, as several years of appraisal of storage sites may be needed before substantial, risk-reduced investment can be made in CCS power plants.
Some more cutting-edge capture research was also described, including the flameless pressurised oxyfuel process developed by ITEA in Italy and work from Imperial College on the calcium looping process. ITEA are currently operating a 5 MWt pilot which has demonstrated how flameless combustion can eliminate many of the ash-related problems experienced with an ordinary pressurised process, such as corrosion and erosion, whilst retaining impressively high efficiencies. Calcium looping has also been widely touted as the key to low energy penalty carbon capture, potentially able to achieve an efficiency penalty of 6 percentage points. An essential feature of this process, which uses limestone to shuffle CO2 between two fluidised bed reactors, is that it manages to also harness the energy released by the exothermic absorption of CO2. Fears over the difficulty of circulating hot solids between reactors have proved unfounded by the early success of 1.7 MWt pilot in Spain. Given the slow adoption of first generation carbon capture technology, it was suggested that potentially more efficient second generation technologies such as these may even be able to leapfrog to a more advanced stage.
The workshop reflected a pervading feeling in the CCS community that the technology will not be able to truly prove its worth until a political strategy creates the right environment for investment. Several speakers noted the dramatic reduction in costs achievable once the demonstration phase has been completed, or once a cluster of plants are able to share a common CO2 infrastructure. CCS may therefore be a case of all or nothing, and with concerns over energy affordability rife, it could be time for governments to take the plunge with this relatively economic carbon mitigation technology.