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A major setback for CCS

Perhaps the best thirty minutes I spent at COP18 in Doha was listening to a presentation by Myles Allan, Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford and Head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the University’s Department of Physics. The presentation was given at the opening of the WBCSD Business Day on Monday 10th December and focused on the root issue that must ultimately be dealt with, the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Myles made the point, very clearly with the aid of props, that while the UNFCCC and others argue endlessly about the flow rate of CO2 into the atmosphere (i.e. the emissions at some point in time), that fossil carbon continues to add to the carbon stock in the biosphere and that this stock is linked directly with global temperature, ocean acidity and so on. A portion of his presentation is available on YouTube. In short, the CO2 issue is a stock problem, not a flow problem. Dealing with it in terms of flow will not resolve the stock issue, at best it may delay it by a few years. At the current rate of accumulation, the 2 deg.C stock equivalent is passed in about 2043.

Myles concluded with just one key observation: that the logical conclusion of the stock approach to climate change (rather than the flow approach) is that CCS is the game changing technology. This comes from the view that the global use of fossil fuels for energy will not go away (and possibly not even decline) and therefore, to prevent the stock of carbon continuing to accumulate in the biosphere, fossil carbon must be returned to its source, the geosphere. As such, the focus of efforts in policy circles should be in getting CCS going as fast as possible.

Against this background came the news of last Friday from the European Commission regarding the award of the 1st round of NER300 project funding for CCS and novel renewable energy projects.

Nearly all RES projects were confirmed. Most CCS projects were, however, not confirmed by the Member State concerned, and therefore could not be retained. Member States were unable to confirm the projects for various reasons: in some cases there were funding gaps, while other CCS projects were not sufficiently mature to allow for such confirmation under the first call for projects.

Only one CCS project was mentioned, but this had already been withdrawn, so no CCS projects made it through to receive funding through the 1st call for projects. There is at least the small consolation that the money earmarked for the withdrawn CCS project will roll through to the 2nd call for projects, but this guarantees nothing for CCS. By contrast, 23 renewable energy projects are listed in the Commission document.

But the NER300 is a mechanism that was initially proposed to support CCS and underpin the construction of some ten demonstration projects across the EU.

It was first suggested in early 2008 by various proponents of CCS both within and outside the EU Parliament and consisted of a pool of 500 million allowances which could be drawn on in exchange for future stored CO2. In very simple terms, it would “multiply the prevailing carbon price”, which was seen as a necessary early step to kick-start this key technology. Throughout the negotiations surrounding the Energy and Climate package, the mechanism morphed somewhat: it linked itself to the New Entrant Reserve (NER), adopted novel renewable technologies, fell to as low as 100 million allowances at one point but ended up at the 11th hour as the final gavel fell at 300 million allowances (hence the name – NER300). As I described back in June;

The mechanism, in combination with a robust underlying carbon price, meant that a viable demonstration programme could emerge. The 300 million allowances could conceivably generate €9 billion in funds, which meant up to €1.35 billion for some projects (i.e. the 15% limit). With potential Member State co-funding adding additional support, a 500 MW end-to-end CCS power station was even feasible and some of the projects originally submitted to the Commission for consideration were on this scale.

But the collapse of the CO2 price in the EU throws a huge question mark over the viability of the programme. So far the European Investment Bank (charged with monetizing the 300 million allowances) have sold over a 100 million allowances at a price of around €8.10 each. That’s a good effort in the current market, but it substantially changes the economics of a project. Now the maximum grant that any given project can collect is €360 million and it will be operating in a €6 CO2 market. Even with matching funds from the relevant member state, now much more challenging due to EU financial circumstances, a large scale project looks very unlikely. Large scale early CCS projects require a CO2 price in the range €60-100, not €20-25 (assuming €6 ETS price, maximum NER 300 financing and some member state co-financing).

The selection process for projects will proceed over the balance of this year with an announcement expected in December, but at least for the CCS part of the NER300 (innovative renewable energy projects are also supported) one wonders how this will pan out.

This had all the hallmarks of a train wreck waiting to happen, with the observers watching from the sidelines. Sadly, despite the efforts of groups such as ZEP, the trainwreck is now underway. The EU Commission has followed the NER300 rules to the letter (which arguably it has to), the market isn’t providing the necessary carbon price for CCS investment and Member State support is lacking given the EU financial situation.

The end result is the sad but unfortunately predictable absence of CCS projects from a funding mechanism specifically designed to support them. While CCS projects will still develop in the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA, no single country has the ambition of the original EU demonstration programme. The NER300 process will continue but CCS may fare no better in Round 2 if action isn’t taken. The Commission and Member States need to reflect on the outcome of the first round of the NER and learn the lessons, perhaps looking again at the conditionality of the funding to ensure that the second round awards result in an overall balance between renewables and CCS across the mechanism as a whole.  The EU Commission has a real challenge in front of it to rescue the situation, although with 200 million allowances now allocated in the first round (albeit with some money returning for the failed CCS project), there is limited resource remaining for a meaningful demonstration of CCS.

If CCS is the game-changing technology for the climate issue, then we may well be on our way to a very different but much more significant trainwreck.

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