The business of science
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) may increase the total cost of generating power but it could also generate profits – at the same time as saving the planet . And for Professor Stuart Haszeldine, if we want to tap its full potential, we need an integrated approach to CCS, involving sociologists, economists and lawyers as well as engineers and scientists...…
Article by Peter Barr
He may be a geologist but Professor Stuart Haszeldine of the University of Edinburgh believes that to make any progress in reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide, we need to do a lot more work in legislation, business and technology – as well as pure science. “Science doesn't have all the answers,” he says. “CCS requires a multi-disciplinary approach and that's what we are doing here in Edinburgh – looking at the legal, socio-economic and political issues, as well as the chemistry, geology and engineering.”
According to Haszeldine, who has focused on carbon capture and storage (CCS) since 2003, Scotland could also play a critical role in the CCS industry in future, not only as a centre of research and development but also as a “storage tank” for vast amounts of carbon dioxide – with enough porous rocks and “holes in the ground” to store an estimated 100 years-worth of Europe's emissions of carbon dioxide. Haszeldine describes CCS as oil and gas extraction “in reverse,” and points out it could also help improve the overall efficiency and extend the lifespan of North Sea oil fields, if they are used for CO2 storage – extractng extra oil for no extra carbon.
Haszeldine is also very frank about the scale of the CO2 problem – and the decisions we will have to make to solve it. The evidence of climate change is hard to ignore – for example, the acidification of the oceans. For 40 million years, the pH level of the sea hardly varied but since 1750, it has gone down by half a per cent. By 2050, scientists estimate that the ocean will be five times more acid than at any time since glaciation. This means major changes in nutrient levels, and marine experiments already show a significant impact on sealife – for example, squid and octopus numbers, plankton and coral. And the culprit is carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere by burning huge amounts of fossil fuels for different applications – half of which dissolves in the ocean.
“We're all complicit,” he declares. “If we want cheap energy (including electricity for transport) and decide that coal is the answer, we will need CCS. There is lots of talk of energy efficiency but we are likely to consume 30 per cent more energy per head by 2030.”
We have a “fixation” on burning coal, says Haszeldine, but we can't ignore the fact that fossil fuels will be a major source of energy for decades to come, because they are available at such attractive costs. We may have reached the tipping point in oil – having used up more than half of our total reserves – but the planet still has huge amounts of coal and we've only just started on natural gas. There are also huge reserves of methane trapped under the icecaps. Haszeldine, who worked for 20 years in the oil and gas industry, describes coal and gas as our “insurance policy,” and if they continue to meet a significant proportion of our energy needs, the question is how to cut the carbon released into the atmosphere – and the answer is CCS. About a third of Scotland's greenhouse gasses come from coal-fired power stations (plus 10-20 per cent from industrial plants and 25 per cent from land use), so to reduce our total carbon dioxide emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2020 is highly unlikely, Haszeldine says, unless we get a move on with CCS.
CCS will cost a lot of money, says Haszeldine, but it is worth every penny and will become a lot cheaper in future. Putting it into perspective, CCS power generation systems today cost about the same as onshore wind and about half the cost of offshore wind, but the cost will go down over time as we implement projects more widely. CCS also adds about 50 per cent to the cost of a new gas-fired power station, but this is not a huge amount compared to the alternatives. For example, a nuclear power plant costs about four or five times more to construct, and it takes about 15 years to recoup the investment, compared to only three to four years for a gas-fired plant. What we need, in Haszeldine's opinion, is price support to kickstart the CCS sector, in a similar way to the wind turbine industry.
With CCS, says Haszeldine, we have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes – and focus on the economic benefits rather than costs. The UK used to be a leader in nuclear power but we have lost a lot of talent through the years as investment slowed down. Similarly, we invented a lot of the technology for wind turbines then lost the initiative to overseas producers. “We didn't have enough projects in the pipeline to sustain a national industry,” says Haszeldine – a mistake that we should not repeat with CCS. “We need a minimum of four commercial-sized projects, and we also need to sort out legal issues and certification,” he adds. For example, the UK government has signed international agreements to permit the storage of CO2 “in sub-seabed geological formations” as well as in offshore sedimentary rocks beneath the North Sea and the Irish Sea.
Haszeldine also believes that we are “living off the fat of the nationalised industries” when it comes to the existing electricity infrastructure. “The so-called free market is not free,” he adds. “For CCS to work, we need to overcome strategic problems, and the government must intervene.”
We need to cut emissions but the private sector has to make profits. The government could force the power companies to implement CCS in all power stations but a more practical option would be government subsidies to compensate the power companies for the difference between the price of building a new conventional fossil-fuel power station and one with CCS, as well as the difference in operating costs.
The CCS industry does not need a handout, however – simply strategic investment. In the long term, it would generate significant profits at the same time as reducing emissions, and be an integral part of an industry with an enormous potential to generate and even export excess electricity. “CCS is still a new industry,” Hazeldine says, “and new industries cost money. But we have all the skills to develop and commercialise CCS now, implementing projects which will help us hold on to our talent.”
The UK government has plans to fund major CCS projects (see sidebar), and the EU also has seven medium-scale projects in the pipeline, investing about 150 million euros in each, including five post-combustion amine-based projects and pre-combustion, plus 12 smaller projects on the scale of Longannet. The first EU-backed CCS project in the UK will be at King's Norton, and should be operational by 2014, with three more up and running in the UK by 2018. “The current projects are the bridge we need to full-scale commercialisation,” says Haszeldine. “We need public funding because power companies generally do not take risks – unlike oil and gas companies.”
The UK CCS consortium – a 3-year programme involving a network of 14 universities funded by the NERC – was a step in the right direction, says Haszeldine, and the academic sector now has to rise to the challenge ahead, not just collaborating with each other but also with utility providers and the oil industry (e.g. to find potential storage sites), as well as major players in transportation and engineering.
According to Haszeldine, Scotland also has a great opportunity in CCS, with initiatives like the Scottish Centre for Carbon Storage (SCCS) leading the way. “Scotland has come from nowhere to become a major international player,” he says. The EPSRC recently set aside £38 million for new CCS projects, including £2m for Haszeldine's department to investigate a number of topics including environmental impact and climate change.
Among the projects being carried out in Edinburgh is one which looks at biochar – a way of storing carbon in the soil, using charcoal produced by burning biomass or other agricultural waste, an approach which could provide a very local solution for any size of operation, from industrial farms to allotments.
The UK aims to cut its emissions by 80 per cent by the year 2050. Many people bury their head in the sand when they think of the scale of the problem, but Haszeldine suggests the best solution is to face the facts and bury the problem – and in the process make money.