CCS in the UK – the role of R&D? London, 15 October

Yesterday I attended a snappily titled conference in London which posed the question ‘Carbon Capture and Storage: ‘What role for R&D in delivering cost-competitive CCS projects in the UK in the 2020s?’ Organised by a number of organisations with an interest in CCS, including the Advanced Power Generation Technology Forum (APGTF), the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA), and UK CCS research council, the event encouraged delegates to comment on a draft list of CCS research priorities based on the findings of a workshop held last year. The suggested topics were very much focussed on the immediate research needs of the large-scale CCS projects that are hoped to follow on from the initial Peterhead and White Rose demonstration plants. Most were related to CO2 storage appraisal and monitoring, with a few on how best to integrate CCS plants with the grid and energy markets, and a couple aimed at practical ways of cutting costs of the amine absorber which represents the most costly component of a postcombustion capture facility.

Notable in their absence were any research themes relating to oxyfuel combustion, despite this being the capture technology to be used at the prospective White Rose CCS demonstration at Drax power station in Yorkshire. This project is itself hanging in the balance somewhat, following last month’s announcement that Drax Power would no longer be investing in the plant, leaving the two capture technology providers undeterred but in search of someone to operate their plant. Although there is outward confidence in the CCS community that both CCS demonstrations can, and should, still go ahead, the day’s presentations indicated a growing shift in focus in both UK industry and academia towards CCS with gas. As one such project, Shell’s Peterhead demonstration seems increasingly sure to succeed, and other gas turbine projects are apparently waiting in the wings. The US has demonstrated how easily a shift from coal to gas is can satisfy early carbon targets, and the UK appears to be following suit with a recent pledge to close all coal plants by 2023. However, as future carbon targets will certainly require CCS on a large proportion of fossil power plants, the roll out of so much gas power begins to make less sense, with its costly and insecure fuel supply and dilute CO2 emissions which are harder to capture. Some speakers did warn that coal should not be forgotten, both on grounds of security of supply and the inevitable global need to retrofit CCS to the enormous coal fleets in China and India.

The conference saw much debate over how the UK’s limited research funding should be distributed between the short term, practical goals primarily under discussion, and longer term targets like developing completely new, lower cost capture technologies which will ultimately displace the rather inefficient processes we have today. Such is the desperation that at least something should be built in the UK, there was a strong sense that, for now, R&D should focus more on perfecting what we have, and initial successes will feed into future innovation. It was stressed that even though CCS is now a reality at large scales, there remains enormous scope for technical solutions which can reduce costs and optimise component systems of the current process. On the other hand, the Energy Technology Institute and others were quick to point out that the majority of savings for future CCS cost projects will come rather from reduced financing costs as the technology becomes less risky and more bankable for investors. In this respect, any novel capture technology will now have to boast a significant improvement in cost and efficiency if it is to overcome the inherent risk when backing a new horse. Research into improving the business case for CCS was also proposed in the list of priorities, but there was some consensus that this kind of thing may be best left to the industry itself once the early plants have got going.

As ever, there was consternation from those with an interest in industrial CCS that all this focus on the power sector ignores the fact that CO2 capture from many industrial processes is much easier and arguably more essential. The reasonable response from supporters of the current approach is that power plants represent large sources of CO2 which, unlike industry, are tied to our shores, and should therefore form the first hubs which future industrial projects may feed into. Incidentally,  the country’s leading industrial CCS project was last week hit by the closure of a steel plant which was to supply much of its CO2, making it a somewhat bad month for CCS in the UK generally. A representative from the Teeside project nevertheless affirmed their commitment to go ahead with the remaining plants in the group.

Despite the palpable impatience for CCS to get off the ground in the UK, there is now a real sense of optimism that at least one demonstration plant will be given the green light next year. This is reflected in the desire to bring the country’s R&D priorities down to earth, aimed at smoothing the way for a second generation of plants by providing incremental cost savings and dependable CO2 storage. There is also a feeling that limited funds should not be spread too thinly by pursuing too many research avenues, especially where the UK can better learn from international experiences. Whilst I am convinced that entirely new, more efficient capture technologies will be essential if CCS is to truly become an acceptable part of power generation, it is clear that such innovation is more likely to thrive in an environment where CCS is already a reality, so this pragmatic approach may well pay dividends.