So much from so little

One of the many report launches at COP22 was the 2016 Global Status of CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), released by GCCSI (Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute) on November 15th. The report identifies 15 large-scale CCS projects in operation around the world, with a CO2 capture capacity of close to 30 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa).

A further three large-scale projects, all in the US, are poised to become operational, bringing the number of operational projects to 18 by early 2017 (with a CO2 capture capacity of 35 Mtpa). As projects in Australia and Canada come on-line during 2017, the number of large-scale operational CCS projects is expected to increase to 21 by the end of 2017, with a CO2 capture capacity of approximately 40 Mtpa. This compares with less than 10 operational large-scale CCS projects in 2010.

Encouraging as this is, it is not enough. The report notes that the current level of CCS deployment does not go anywhere near what is required from CCS to meet the Paris ‘well below’ 2°C climate target.

One chart of particular interest is on page 13 of the report and compares spending over the last decade on CCS vs. clean energy. For CCS the total is $20 billion, compared with $2.5 trillion for clean energy investment. But in many instances, the justification for clean energy investment is claimed to be for low emissions and consequent climate benefits, rather than simply for the energy generated. If that is the case, how do these two approaches compare on a pure climate basis?

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CCS is a technology that is entered into almost entirely for climate reasons. While some carbon dioxide is used for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) and various niche applications, for the most part this is a technology designed to prevent carbon dioxide from entering atmosphere when fossil fuels are used, instead returning it to the geosphere. By contrast, a technology such as solar PV is designed to produce electricity, which may then displace a certain fossil fuel usage that might have been used to generate the same amount of electricity. However, its effectiveness for climate mitigation purposes depends on the nature of the displacement; it is quite possible that the displaced fuel is used elsewhere or consumed later, which may negate some or all of the benefit claimed.

Returning to the chart and the report, by the end of 2017 some 40 Mtpa of carbon dioxide will be captured and stored. Also by 2017 there will be some 300 GW of solar PV in the world. The latter has had at least an order of magnitude more fiscal support than that offered to CCS, and according to GCCSI clean energy in total has had over two orders of magnitude more investment than CCS. Let’s assume from the chart that a third of the Total Clean Energy is solar, so $800 billion.

To assess the climate benefit of solar PV, let us use a solar company figure; the First Solar project, Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, is 550 MW and according to the project website displaces some 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. On that basis 300 GW of solar is displacing 163 Mtpa of carbon dioxide, compared with the 40 Mtpa that CCS is achieving.

So for ~$30 billion ($20 billion in the period 2006-2015 and perhaps ~$10 billion prior to 2006), CCS is achieving a quarter the climate benefit as ~$800 billion of solar, on an investment basis. Of course, this is not the complete story as the CCS incurs an annual operating cost and the Solar PV provides electricity, but there is a factor of nearly seven here in terms of carbon dioxide benefit in favour of the CCS.

CCS has not yet had the same opportunity as solar PV for cost reductions, given the small number of installations, although results from facilities such as the Shell Quest plant in Canada have already indicated that savings are there. If this is the case that factor may well increase.

The GCCSI report highlights the effectiveness of CCS when faced with the issue of emissions mitigation, which is what the climate issue is really all about. Simply building out renewable energy capacity with the hope of permanently displacing fossil fuel use may not be a cost effective approach when climate is the single objective. Of course, we don’t live in a world of single objectives, but nevertheless the calculation above demonstrates that we need to give CCS a much greater opportunity to flourish and do the job for which it is ideally positioned; permanently removing carbon dioxide.