CCS: A fiction that has outlived its usefulness

With only a handful of pilot projects in operation around the world, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has not played a significant role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. CCS has, however, been valuable as a fiction for all those who want, for whatever reason, to avoid dealing explicitly with the fact that stabilizing the global climate will require ending the use of fossil fuels, and particularly coal. For example, rather than prohibiting new coal-fired power stations, the US EPA has proposed that only power stations equipped with CCS technology should be permitted. Since new coal stations are mostly uneconomic even without CCS, this amounts to a ban, but can be justified simply as requiring best practice.

It now appears that this fiction has outlived its usefulness. Recent reports suggest that the EPA will drop the CCS requirement in favour of the weaker requirement that all new coal-fired stations should use supercritical combustion. There are two main reasons for this

(a) The requirement might not stand up to legal challenge on the basis that CCS is not a feasible technology
(b) No new coal plants are likely to be built anyway

Meanwhile, the EU is struggling over proposals to stop subsidies for coal-fired power. Again, the compromise was to subsidise only projects with CCS. But the coal lobby is now arguing that

proposed requirements on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to neutralise emissions have to be realistic as the technology is still in its infancy.

In this context, “realistic” means supercritical and therefore theoretically ready for CCS, as opposed to actually using the technology.

Combine this with a string of cuts in funding for CCS projects, and the conclusion is inescapable. CCS is an ex-parrot.

41 thoughts on “CCS: A fiction that has outlived its usefulness

  1. I have to agree. I always predicted CCS would fail. I got that one right.

    I predicted solar and wind power would have trouble generating enough EROEI. I got that one wrong.

    I predicted the world economy would be smaller (measured by World Income) in 2020 than in 2010. I will very probably get that wrong.

    Hmmm, this prediction business is quite difficult.

    However, I still have grave concerns about climate change, species extinctions and some resource shortages. I still think it’s going to be a difficult century but I guess I will see less than half of it.

  2. Coal accounts for 18% of Australian exports. It would be foolish to ignore the possibilities of CCS since a viable technology would help secure these exports.

  3. The issue of timing seems significant. CCS technology that is not economically viable within the next decade seems likely to have missed the boat and be irrelevant

  4. I’ve always been extremely dubious of cost effective CCS, mostly because a tonne of solid (and transportable in open topped containers) high grade coal turns into 3.6 tonnes of (gaseous and transportable only in compression containment or within more tonnes of some absorbant material) CO2. This was never going to be cheap and easy – except for it’s function as a cheap and easy hypothetical for influencing policy in favour of continuing expansion of fossil fuels dependence.

  5. Even if CCS were technically viable, and suitable for a significant fraction of the coal-fired power stations in existence, they cannot be fitted out on a time scale which makes CCS relevant as a helping hand in avoiding the serious consequences of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). The problem is we have to curtail emissions on a far faster time scale, and this means closing down coal-fired plants in fairly smart order; perhaps a few could receive CCS technology and be brought out of mothballs, or avoid closure, but the vast majority simply cannot remain in operation while waiting for the day they receive the CCS solution. If these ideas had been worked hard on in the 1960s, 1970s, and had succeeded in coming up with relatively cheap CCS retrofits, then perhaps the story would be different now, and it would have become mainstream.

  6. @hc

    But hang on isn’t it foolish to keep using coal since our safe global CO2 budget is already pretty much used up?

  7. @Ikonoclast

    And I should have added to the above post:

    (1) CCS uses up so much of the energy output of the coal power station that it just makes solar and wind power even more attractive; and
    (2) There is no guarantee that a lot of the stored CO2 won’t out-gas again at some time relatively soon.

  8. Sadly, this may undermine the promising new technology of C2C that I’ve just thought up.

    1. Mine coal.
    2. Burn the coal.
    3. Cool and divert the resulting CO2 into giant greenhouses containing fast-growing woody, leafy plants.
    4. Harvest and deeply bury that plant mass.
    5. Let the magic of heat, pressure and geological time convert it back to coal.
    6. See 1.

    Seems foolproof.

  9. We should resist the temptation to Schadenfreude. If CO2 sequestration is impractical for large continuous and concentrated point sources of the gas, that is bad news for sequestration in general. We are left with less developed biological approaches: biochar and burial.
    BTW, renewable synfuels need a source of carbon to go with the electrolysed hydrogen. Biomass looks far better than extraction from teatmosphere. A Stuttgart research institute proposed a clever scheme to supply electrolysed hydrogen to biomass methane reactors, for plant material (typically cellulose) has too low a ratio of hydrogen to carbon to use up al the lattr in fermentation.

  10. We should resist the temptation to Schadenfreude. If CO2 sequestration is impractical for large, continuous and concentrated point sources of the gas, that is bad news for sequestration in general. We are left with less developed biological approaches: biochar and burial.

    BTW, renewable synfuels need a source of carbon to go with the electrolysed hydrogen. Biomass looks far better than direct extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. A Stuttgart research institute proposed a clever scheme to supply electrolysed hydrogen to biomass methane reactors, for plant material (typically cellulose) has too low a ratio of hydrogen to carbon to use up all the latter in fermentation. I don’t know what came of the idea.

  11. In 2010/11 while I was employed in the Qld Dept of Mines and Energy, I was briefly responsible for Qld’s implementation of CCS subsidies. This was always a political stunt. On basic thermodynamics it cannot work except for a very limited number of basins so cannot be scaled up, and even then imposes an energy and carbon penalty on top of the existing extraction. Evidence that it is a diversion is that the big mining companies were reluctant to fund the research with their own money.

  12. @Geoff Edwards

    Precisely. It was always an intentional diversionary strategy by Big Coal. The ETS was also an intentional diversionary strategy. The difference is an ETS could have worked. However, the fossil fuel interests never intended the ETS to work. In their hands it was another diversionary, delaying strategy. The only way to deal with these issues in time is with government implemented dirigist strategies. The market does too little, too late. Whenever the greater public good, ecological requirements and long-term generational goals are involved the market is not a suitable mechanism. Neither are subsidies to precisely the wrong interests a solution.

  13. @11 This isn’t Schadenfreude. Like HC, I backed CCS as long as it seemed like a viable possibility. See here for example.

    It would have been good for Australia and for the global environment if CCS had turned out to be feasible. But to (mis?)quote Keynes, when the facts changed, I changed my mind.

  14. I come from a coal-town (Collie), where the local LNP and Labor fools still fight for the future of the coal industry and do not have a single idea for the future of the region without coal mining.

    CCS had the thought-free appeal of seeming like an idea that these lazy politicians could run with, and they did.

    The very deliberate CCS ‘promise’ has probably added 15 years to the realisation that coal is finished. That is a crime, against the communities as well.

  15. > Like HC, I backed CCS as long as it seemed like a viable possibility.

    Five minutes? It’s not a technical problem: you work with the strata you have, and there aren’t enough gas-tight strata to supply current demands for methane.

  16. The Lady Haw Haw of climate change denialism, Jo Nova, recently came to the same conclusion

    , then attempted in a later thread to hang the CCS failed technology around the neck of climate activism as a “vested interest”, when it was actually an invention of the fossil fuel industry along with “clean coal” in an attempt to improve their public image and preserve their wasteful industry.

  17. A quick Q: did CCS technologies also reduce the amount of particulate matter (and hence the immediate/local health impacts) emitted by coal plants? Or are the two completely different systems?

  18. @Nevil Kingston-Brown

    One would assume a coal power station fancy enough to have CCS would also have particulate filters / ash filters as a matter of course. In fact, they might well be technically necessary to efficiently put the flue gases through the CCS process. That would be my guess.

  19. @Geoff Edwards
    I seem to remember these CCS subsidies from the first Rudd Government amounted to somewhere in the $1 billion range. Hopefully if they weren’t matched by coal industry CCS contributions then the tax-payers were saved somewhat from this initial and on-going absurdity.

  20. I understand that about 40% of the coal mass finishes up as ash and is recovered for use as construction filler.
    The rest is CO2 and Sulphur compounds.
    I think CCS is a bit like nuclear fusion, has been about 3 years away for the last 50 years.

  21. @Huggybunny

    “Approximately 10% of the mass of coals burned in the United States consists of unburnable mineral material that becomes ash, so the concentration of most trace elements in coal ash is approximately 10 times the concentration in the original coal.” – Wikipedia.

    It clearly varies by coal type, but a reasonable grade black thermal coal would only produce about 10% by mass of ash I would think.

  22. I think the nuclear, and the CCS, as options, have been desperately grasped by politicians as an easy way of avoiding addressing the climate change issue head-on. Overseas, the work in Europe and the US on alternative energy, and more specifically on renewable energy, provides Australia with ready to roll alternatives to coal and gas for electricity production. The troglodytes in power simply can’t grasp that they have to change, they must change, as must everyone else around the planet.

    The past thirty years of foolish denial within our political ranks, followed by foolish disagreement on the extent and the mechanisms for addressing the problem, have exacerbated the problem. Although Australia is not a big emitter in absolute terms, it’s political influence within the significant organisations most able to influence and drive change has been immense—immensely destructive—out of all proportion to our size, however you care to measure it. Australia has to get over it and just get on with the job of cutting back our emissions in absolute terms, not just in relative terms that can be gamed.

    We had a good idea 30 years ago as to what lay ahead:

    The first documented disappearance of an Antarctic ice shelf occurred around 25 years ago. The Larsen Inlet ice shelf, a 350-square-kilometer slab north of Larsen A, was present in a satellite photograph taken in 1986, but by the time another image was made in 1988, most of it was missing. No one had any sense of how it might have vanished.

    I disagree with the final sentence in that quote, as some scientists had been stating that this could happen, and happen quite quickly, if paleo evidence was a guide. Since 1986, we have accumulated much more observational data, paleo-climate data, and we have developed much better mathematical models as to how massive ice shelves, glaciers, etc behave. The argument in the political space doesn’t have the slightest conception as to the risks we are exposing our modern societies to, especially coastal urban areas, cities to be more precise.

    We already know we’ll need to adapt, and keep on adapting, as AGW’s consequences manifest; the question is as to how much time we continue to squander on hoping it won’t be anywhere near as bad as the most optimistic scientists say. That seems to have been the pattern for decades now.

  23. My favourite article evangelising CCS comes from Breakthrough Institute fellows Daniel Sarewitz AND Roger Pielke Jr.

    The ecomodernists promote frakking, CCS & nuclear. A recent report argues that the recession and not natural gas was the primary driver for the small drop in emissions in the USA.

    So CCS has failed, nuclear is struggling & frakking is of little help. How do the BTI respond to their total policy failure? Embrace it of course.

    “Increasingly few people believe humans are likely to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. How then should we think about likely impacts — and possible responses? Those were the questions debated at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue concurrent session on climate risk.”

    Climate risk? One of the biggest risks is that people continue to take these numpties seriously.

  24. @Donald Oats

    Don’t forget the work being done in China. In many ways China is in the forefront, albeit they do still use a LOT of coal because they are still growing fast AND they are already the biggest economy in the world. Of course, the USA, all its politicians and most of its people are still in complete denial about the fact that China’s economy has passed them like they are standing still. And those market liberals say dirigisme doesn’t work. LOL.

    In the rest of your post, you are completely right. The scientists know what is going on. The politicians and corporate capitalist Powers That Be have no idea and/or just don’t care which are both functionally the same in terms of generating bad outcomes.

  25. India’s lowest Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for utility scale solar is about 8 US cents a kilowatt-hour. New coal power in India typically receives PPAs from 7 to 9 US cents a kilowatt-hour. And generally wind power is much cheaper than either. Given that once a PPA is over a solar farm will be able to sell electricity with next no operating cost per kilowatt-hour, while a coal power station will have to pay for coal, increasing maintenance costs for an aging plant, and almost beyond doubt a carbon price, even when PPAs are equal solar is clearly a better choice than coal and currently wind is generally a better choice than either. It is these sorts of conditions that are required for countries such as India to stop building coal power plants and for the world as a whole to stop digging the hole it is in any deeper. And under these conditions where it is no longer economical to build coal power plants, coal power with Carbon Capture and Storage is deader than a dodo at the annual convention of dodo hating maniacs.

  26. I’ll mention that in Australia the lowest PPA for wind so are is 8.15 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s 5.95 US cents at current exchange rates. And rooftop solar, thanks to our high retail electricity prices, beats any utility scale generation. However, electricity retailers are seeking to “fix” this by damaging our nation and the world by doing things such as raising daily supply. Here’s an example of daily a supply charges being increased to $11.49 a day or $4,197 dollars a year and the marginal price of electricity being lowered down to 3.29 cents a kilowatt-hour:

  27. @Ronald Brak
    Interesting, if not unexpected. I wonder if the company can be sued, using the previous tariffs as proof that the current tariffs aren’t cost reflective. A class action against an unconscionable change in tariff arrangements, perhaps?

    In the longer run, such crazy tariff management drives customers into thinking how can they escape the arrangement entirely, and as the author observes, battery storage gets the benefit of that consideration.

    The gasping breaths of a business model in serious transition.

  28. CCS as a technology to reduce CO2 emissions by 2020 or 2030 to specified limitis world-wide seems to be indeed a narrative in the sense of a fiction. But CCS, as a technology (know-how), as distinct from the least cost production method, isn’t a fiction. See Schwarze Pumpe and the Canadian CCS power plant in operation since 2014 (reference: the guardian, 1/10/14). [1]

    Maybe it is a little too early to write off CCS as a waste of research money. Countries such as Poland are also committed to reducing ghg emissions. But it isn’t easy. Poland is not blessed with the sunshine of Spain, Italy, and Australia nor blessed with a geography that lends itself to lots of hydroelectricity generation but there are rich coal deposits. Coal mines provide jobs for large numbers of workers (underground coal mines). There is strong union objection to coal mine closures (state owned). demanded by the government due to local coal having become too expensive relative to imported coal. I don’t know where the imported coal is coming from. Nuclear is considered.. Lets see whether CCS will be used too.

    [1] Vattenfall has indeed divested from the R&D into CCS. It has divested many other operations as well. From what I can gather from their web-site, Germany’s “Energiewende”, entailing decommissioning of its nuclear power plants well ahead of earlier plans, has affected Vattenfall’s balance sheet. This company had followed what is called ‘an aggressive acquisition’ strategy before the GFC.

  29. @Ronald Brak

    If old-style fossil fuel utility power generators pursue that ludicrous nonsense then people will disconnect from the grid in droves. It will be far more economical for domestic users to use solar plus storage. It’s almost hard to believe the corporate utilities are that stupid but strangely (or not so strangely) established old-paradigm business is always stupid compared to innovating, entrepreneurial business.

    Old businesses are managed by business-as-usual people doing what they did 20 years ago (when it actually might have been innovative). They react to radically new business conditions by panicking and making really stupid decisions. They are too set in their ways to adapt sensibly and they lack the necessary concepts and imagination as well. By all means let them panic and shoot themselves in the foot. It will aid progress.

  30. @Ernestine Gross

    I believe that the cost of power from a CCS coal electricity generator with totally safe storage strata for the CO2 would give us the best first indication for a true carbon emissions price. In theory, a dirty plant emitting CO2 should pay a price somewhat higher, over the remaining life cycle of the plant, than the cost of a full CCS retrofit. In other words, the CO2 emissions price would need to be high enough to “convince” relatively new non-CCS plants to retrofit and old non-CCS plants to simply shut down early based on a financial/business analysis.

    But the next step of analysis would involved comparing electricity cost from a brand new CCS plant or a new-ish plant CCS-retrofitted with the cost of renewable energy (say solar and wind).

    I believe that sometimes markets can work for some goods and services if the market is undistorted by subsidies, rent seeking, special pleading, monopoly tendencies, un-costed negative externalities and other problem factors.

  31. @Ronald Brak
    At India’s cost of capital – a WACC of 8% would be conservative – the present value of the income flow after 25 years makes little difference. Run a spreadsheet with a 200-year stream of equal benefits compared to one that stops dead at 25 years. The NPV goes up by only 17%. (NPV of $100 a year for 25 years at 8%: $1,067; for 200 years: $1,250.). What makes a real difference to the cost comparison and NPVs is including the health costs imposed by fossil fuels.

  32. James, it is certainly true that there is not a huge difference between investing in a coal power station that is scrapped after 20 years and investing in one that is scrapped after 40 or 60 years. However, there is a difference and as that difference involves money it matters. But about human lives, we care not one jot. Does saving a human life get me any closer to owning another maserati? No. The day legislation changes to force me to price in trivial externalities such as killing people or destroying the climate, well that’s the day I pay off a political party to remove the offending legislation. However, I have been informed that trick may not work again, so I am taking steps to strip mine fossil fuel generators of their assets and ensure that any major successful lawsuits or unfavorable legislation results in them going bankraupt and dumping the clean up costs for the frequently asbestoes contaminated coal power stations on the public. And really it’s for their own good. If I don’t abuse the public then how will they ever learn to vote in politicans who oppose oligarchy?

  33. Whilst I can agree that you have a credible point about the economic feasibility of CCS (at least for the power sector) – particularly that like nuclear, a cogent argument exists, that costs will not follow a trajectory that will see any sort of possible (useful?) deployment in the next 20 to 30 years in the power sector. (Though the inside story for Boundary Dam is a halving of costs if the next project goes ahead…driven not by leaps in technology, but the challenges faced with doing something a second time are so much less…very interesting stories on a project that had almost no cost overrun, but still spent lots of money revisiting construction outcomes)

    And it’s true that the failure to rapidly scale up a developmental technology to commercial scale in the space of 10 to 20 years (from 2009) was a failure, and could reasonably have been expected to be a failure (at least in hindsight for some of us :-).

    However the language of myth plays poorly to the large science and technology research community in this space.

    It ignores the challenges in the industrial space – that accounts for around 25% of CO2 emissions – where renewables currently remain much more of a cost challenge than CCS.

    It overstates the role that CCS would have had in the continuing use of coal – iirc, most 2 degree scenarios result in something like ~86% of current coal reserves staying in the ground forever. CCS moves that too something like ~81% of current reserves staying in the ground forever (CCS only had a transitionary role for coal use, albeit around 40-60 years – and that’s 5% difference is still a very large amount of coal consumption).

    It doesn’t address the challenge that achieving a 2 degree target by the end of this century requires negative emissions (and is the reason so many environmental NGO’s considered the technology part of the solution). I don’t know how much the recent falls in PV prices change the emission path going forward and flow on impact on any requirement for negative emissions however.

    Nor that CCS R&D continues – but it really is back at the scale of R&D funding (still large in the US), rather than RD & D funding given failed policy.

    Finally, to the extent that it was a figleaf in the US (not sure that applies anywhere else) for delaying climate change action, it’s not credible that the absence of the technology option would have meant any earlier action climate change in that country is it?


  34. @Chris Short

    The proof is in the empirical pudding. Solar power and wind power are going ahead gangbusters on all fronts. CCS is going and has gone exactly nowhere in any substantive sense. If CCS was all of technically feasible, energetically efficient and financially viable it would have proven itself by now. The fact that it hasn’t proves that it ain’t.

  35. Yes Schwarze Pumpe stopped in 2014. The ‘capture’ part in CCS covered many technologies and for coal, there were three. Schwarze Pumpe used the “oxyfuel” process of combusting the coal in a highly enriched oxygen environment – increasing both the efficiency of combustion and a producing a CO2 stream so drastically reducing ‘capture’ costs. Like the other folly for coal combustion, IGCC, these were technologies that added even more to the cost in total and were even more expensive (when properly valued – economists weren’t always welcomed by the engineers) than a modern ultracritical coal plant with the carbon capture part integrated from design.

  36. Geoff Edwards :
    In 2010/11 while I was employed in the Qld Dept of Mines and Energy, I was briefly responsible for Qld’s implementation of CCS subsidies. This was always a political stunt. On basic thermodynamics it cannot work except for a very limited number of basins so cannot be scaled up, and even then imposes an energy and carbon penalty on top of the existing extraction. Evidence that it is a diversion is that the big mining companies were reluctant to fund the research with their own money.

    I remember the first day I ever heard of carbon sequestration, as it was referred to at the time. My first sentence was as Geoff notes – that it was not thermodynamically feasible, that it was like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. Anyone with the understanding to do a good approximate count of the physical numbers would have reached (and most did…) the same conclusion.

    As an excuse to keep burning coal CCS has contributed significantly to at least a decade of delay on action.

    And in hindsiight I would use a different analogy – it’s more like trying to put silly string or shaving cream back in the can…

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