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MPs urge UK to adopt carbon capture and storage

A year after the incoming Tory government cancelled carbon capture and storage (CCS) funding, a committee of MPs has argued that the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should put CCS front and centre of UK energy policy.

According to the MPs, previous problems with CCS stem from the way the government set up its chosen research projects rather than the technology itself:

“There is a widespread view that CCS has to be expensive. On the contrary, the high costs revealed by the earlier UK approaches reflected the design of these competitions, rather than the underlying costs of CCS itself.  This poor design led to the lack of true competition and the imposition of risks on the private sector that it cannot take at reasonable cost for early full-chain projects.

“Previous third party analysis by the CCS Cost Reduction Taskforce and for the Committee on Climate Change as well as analysis performed for this report show full chain CCS costs at c.£85/MWh under the right circumstances. This report concludes that, under the right conditions as set out in this report, even the first CCS projects can compete on price with other forms of clean electricity.”

Critics claim that the industry-funded report underestimates both the technical feasibility and cost of deploying CCS at scale.  The report has had to rely on just 22 real-world examples of working CCS projects – some of which are still in development.  And although it is likely that widespread deployment of the technology should help lower costs, critics point out that all CCS projects involve a high energy cost to operate.  For example, in a paper in Science Direct, Leung et al. note that:

“There are no major technological barriers to the capture and geological storage of CO2 for existing operation but [we] noted that CCS is an energy intensive process that lowers the overall efficiency of the concerned energy/power generating systems. It is inevitable that the costs, both capital and operation, involved in plants equipped with CCS are much higher than those without capture due to the reduction in efficiency and additional capital cost for installing the capture, transport and injection facilities. The high cost of CO2 capture, particularly for dilute streams like those from gas-fired power plants and industrial combustion processes is the major challenge of CCS.”

Since the cost of energy is expected to rise in the near future, the £85 per MWh suggested by the MPs is likely to be an underestimate.  Moreover, costs are also expected to be much higher for retrofitting CCS technology to existing power plants and industrial processes than they are if incorporated into new builds.  This would suggest that CCS is unlikely to be any cheaper than the eye-wateringly expensive Hinkley Point C nuclear plant; and crucially significantly higher than renewables like wind, solar and tide.

The storage side of CCS is also problematic.  According to Leung et al:

“One of the important aspects for geological storage is the potential leakage of the stored CO2 that would impair the effectiveness of the CO2 confinement and eventually lead to serious consequences on the surrounding environments, such as acidification and pollution induced by the mobilization of heavy metals.”

CCS only makes sense if we can guarantee that the CO2 that is captured does not find its way back into the environment (either adding to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or further acidifying the oceans).  The most effective (and expensive) means of achieving this is to pump it into basalt formations with which it will react chemically.  The least effective (and cheapest) is that proposed by the MPs – pumping captured CO2 into depleted oil and gas wells.  Leung et al suggest that pumping CO2 into saline aquifers may ultimately prove cost effective.  But we are not there yet.

Taking the high energy costs and leakage problems into account, the MPs’ report sounds like special pleading for an industry that is being fast overtaken by renewable energy, rather than a basis for a sensible energy/climate strategy.

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