Sunday, 15 April 2012

CCS in the UK

As promised, my next post will be all about carbon capture and storage. It's a little later than I intended: what can I say, I had an enjoyable Easter. As I hinted in my last post, there was big news in the pipeline for CCS, and it was this:

The government has revived the competition to award 1 billion pounds to a power plant that can demonstrate commercial scale CCS: that is a coal or gas fired power plant where the CO2 emissions are captured and pumped offshore in the North Sea, where they are stored in depleted oil/gas reservoirs, or other suitable saline aquifers. They have also set aside £125 million for further research into CCS.

CCS has long been touted as a potential solution for reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions. It allows us to continue burning fossil fuels, without overheating the planet. However, it is not universally popular. Indeed, Greenpeace hate the idea. The principal objections are the cost, and public concerns over leakage security.

I'm not best placed to comment on costs. Yes, CCS will be expensive in comparison with just burning coal with no efforts to moderate their pollution. But then, every alternative energy source, from renewables to nuclear, is a damn sight more expensive than just burning coal. That's why we're so addicted to fossil fuels - they're so remarkably cheap and easy to burn!!! So if we want to mitigate global climate change, whether we get there with nuclear, renewables or CCS (or a combination of all 3), it's going to be more expensive than just burning fossil fuels.

Secondly, public concerns over the risks of leakage. As a geologist/geophysicist, I'm better qualified to comment on this. Public outrage about a potential CCS storage site in the Netherlands has already been sufficient to see the cancellation of Shell's Barendrecht CCS project.

CCS is seen as an unproven technology. This is one of the first things Greenpeace will bring out as the main criticism of CCS. And, once you start telling people that an unproven technology will be deployed near their town, of course they're going to get upset about it. But is CCS really unproven? When the Norwegian government announced an offshore CO2 tax in 1995, Statoil decided it would be cheaper to capture and store the CO2 emissions from their Sleipner drilling rig. CO2 has been injected at Sleipner at a rate of 1 million tonnes per year for over 15 years now, with no sign of leakage. Similar stories can be found at Weyburn, Canada, and at In Salah, Algeria. Unproven? Not really.

However, by far the best way I've found, when talking to non-geologists, to convince them that storing CO2 in subsurface reservoirs is, from a geological perspective, not really that challenging, is to point out that we've been storing gas underground for decades and noone's had a problem with it. The gas we do store is highly explosive, so it's pretty dangerous. It is, of course, natural gas.

Natural gas is produced from reservoirs at a relatively constant rate all year round. However, we use a lot more gas in winter than we do in summer. So the gas we produce in summer has to be stored until winter. The most common storage sites are either depleted gas reservoirs, or saline aquifers, near to the population centers that will be needing the gas.

Now, how is it that we (and the residents of Barendrecht) are ok with storing an explosive gas in geological formations near their towns, yet we have problems if we want to store an inert, non-toxic gas (CO2) in the same formations? This makes no sense to me. But of course, we've been storing natural gas for decades, so it's a proven technology, and it enables the gas companies to lower our bills, while CO2 storage is a 'new' technology, and obviously it's more expensive to capture the CO2 at power plants rather than just burning the coal and polluting our planet.

What's more, while some people are also getting upset at the thought of CO2 pipelines running near their neighbourhoods, they seem totally fine with having explosive gases pumped through pipelines right into their kitchen.

It's the kind of problem that should (and, I believe, does), get psychologists and social scientists all excited about why it is that we often perceive risky things to not be risky, and non-risky things to be dangerous. As a geophysicist, understanding people has never been my strong point. 

Anyway, good news that the government has decided that it will put some more effort into encouraging CCS.

<insersts tongue into cheek>Time to dust of some funding proposals and see if I can't get my fingers into some of that £125 million designated for CCS research </removes tongue from cheek>

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