The mention of carbon capture and storage (CCS) often conjures up the need to reduce CO2 emissions from coal fired power stations. However, CCS technologies have the potential to do the same for gas production, oil refining, smelting and cement industries which also emit significant quantities of carbon dioxide. Australia is the largest coal exporter in the world and, per capita, its largest polluter.
Coal mining and handling employs 30,000 Australians, is a major source of foreign exchange earnings, government revenue and is a growth industry (PDF KB). Further, coal is used in most developing and developed economies as the cheapest and preferred fuel for generating electricity. CCS technologies have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions world-wide.
For all of these reasons, the Australian government has established the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) in Canberra, provided it with $100 million per annum to fund its recurrent costs and allocated $2 billion in the next nine years to achieve its prime function: to accelerate development of CCS technologies globally and have 20 commercial applications in place by 2020.
No simple task. On its success depends continued growth of the coal industry (actively encouraged by government); coal’s dominance for generating electricity (safeguarding Australian exports); and a major reduction of CO2 both in this country and overseas. A high risk strategy for the world if ever there was one, since timely development of CCS is by no means assured of success. Further, it ignores the imperative of preventing an increase of 2C in global temperature.
Several technologies are already well understood but must be further developed to capture CO2 prior to combustion (for example, when heating oil in the refining process) and when fossil fuels are burned (capturing CO2 from flue gases). Capture may involve the use of membrane filters, chemical scrubbers using amino solvents, or the use of metals which form carbonates. When captured, the CO2 has to be stripped from the agent used and safely transported to a point where it can be securely stored.
All technical problems can be overcome if given sufficient resources and time. The Australian government believes that 10 years and $2 billion from itself supplemented by additional resources from other GCCSI members will achieve the required outcomes. Whether this investment is prudent and will produce desired results is quite another matter. Questions which immediately spring to mind are:
- Can outcomes be pursued efficiently?
- Will they be effective and affordable?
- Are cheaper, cleaner ways of generating electricity likely to emerge?
- Would GCCSI funds be better allocated to developing solar technology?
Brazil, Russia, India - growing, major CO2 polluters - and China - already the worlds’ largest polluter, known as the BRIC countries, are not founding members of the GCCSI. Does this indicate that any of those countries will pursue their own priorities for reducing CO2 emissions? If so, will that involve duplicating the work of GCCSI members, working in areas which reduce use of fossil fuels or simply ignoring the need to reduce emissions? China is pursuing the course of increasing its use and dependence on fossil fuels.
Will the BRIC countries be engaged in a race to produce no carbon electricity while GCCSI tries to produce low carbon electricity using fossil fuels? Commercially and environmentally, no carbon is the more attractive approach, except of course to those with a vested interest in coal and oil. This raises the question of just how determined BRIC and other countries will be in opting for a CCS solution in the future, if it emerges?
The challenge facing GCCSI members and non-members alike is: can technology be developed which is able to capture all CO2 emissions, liquefy and transport it, then inject it into a secure storage area and undertake these processes in an affordable manner?
A seemingly insurmountable problem with CCS is that these processes are expensive and require a lot of energy, between 25-40 per cent of power station output. This significantly increases the cost of electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, particularly coal and reduces its ability to compete with energy produced from renewable or nuclear sources.
Further, the current state of technology only enables capture of 80-90 per cent of CO2 emissions where they are mixed with other flue gases. This is not good enough since uncaptured emissions must be paid for at the market price for carbon, a price which will rise and add to the cost of using CCS. By burning coal in pure oxygen it is possible to produce flue gasses which consist of CO2 only, ensuring 100 per cent capture but provision of oxygen further increases the cost of CCS.
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