An important research paper emerged recently from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), raising the profile of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. CDR covers a set of technologies and practices that result in carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere being captured and stored, effectively removing it from the system where it is leading to surface temperature warming. This might be done for one of two reasons;
- To balance emissions from an ongoing source of carbon dioxide, so there is no net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and therefore no warming associated with that source. This is basis for the term net-zero emissions.
- To reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in an attempt to lower surface temperature warming. This might be necessary if warming has exceeded a particular goal, such as 1.5°C, and there is a need to bring the temperature back down again.
There are two categories of CDR and within each of them a subset of approaches. These are;
- Natural solutions, which come from increasing the total carbon held within the natural biosphere. Examples include;
- Reforestation and afforestation.
- Various farming practices to increase soil carbon.
- Wetland restoration and expansion.
- Sustainable harvesting of timber plantations to build structures such as houses, where the carbon is locked away for decades or longer.
- Technical solutions linked with geological storage of carbon dioxide. Examples include;
- Direct air capture of carbon dioxide paired with geological storage (DACCS). This happens today on a very small scale in Iceland [Link], but is likely some years away from a first large scale demonstration.
- Pairing traditional carbon capture and geological sequestration (CCS) with an energy facility using biomass as the feedstock (BECCS). This is indirect air capture in that the carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere when the biomass is grown. This is a scalable technology today and a major facility exists in the USA. Bioethanol production is widespread in the USA, with the fermentation step producing significant amounts of pure carbon dioxide. At such a facility in Illinois around one million tonnes per year of this carbon dioxide is captured and geologically stored, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. An example discussed in the EU Commission’s Hydrogen Strategy released recently notes the possibility of negative emissions from clean hydrogen production (bio-gas +CCS).
Carbon capture and storage is a version of (2) above, but the capture is directly associated with the generation of carbon dioxide, such that it is never emitted. As such, there is no removal from the atmosphere, but the geological storage step remains the same.
The paper gives a good summary of the approaches for CDR (both natural and technology based) and picks apart the various reasons for an almost complete lack of action so far. It also makes the case for why CDR is important and notes the lack of progress so far. Two key findings are given below;
If the EU truly wants to meet its own climate policy goals, it will not be able to avoid pursuing the unconventional mitigation approach of CO2 removal from the atmosphere – in addition to far-reaching conventional emission reduction measures.
Although the European Parliament is one of the more progressive players in EU climate policy, it has so far made little progress on the issue of CDR. During the negotiations on the Regulation on the Governance System for the Energy Union, which was concluded in 2018, it was the EP which succeeded in getting the Council to explicitly mention the long-term option of a European net negative emissions pathway. However, this did not result in any noticeable action on the part of the EP with regard to CDR. In its own-initiative reports, CO2 removal has not been given priority to date. Nor has a firm CDR approach played any role in recent legislative procedures – for example, in the amendments to the Emissions Trading Directive, the Effort Sharing Regulation, and the revision of the LULUCF Regulation during the last legislative period. Currently, there is no solid evidence of how the EP in its current composition will position itself on CDR. The first indication will be the EP’s negotiation position on the EU Climate Law.
Nevertheless, the EU Commission has recognised the role of CDR in its strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy in 2050. They include within the report the image shown below.
Some weeks ago, Shell released a Scenario Sketch which illustrates how the EU might achieve its goal of net-zero emissions in 2050. The Sketch made maximum use of available and expected technologies, including CCS on various industrial facilities, but a gap still remained with emissions of some 700 million tonnes per annum. This gap was filled with CDR, both nature based and artificial. In 2020 (pre-COVID 19), the EU energy system emission flows can be represented as shown below (all numbers in million of tonnes CO2 per year);
For the most part, energy needs are met with fossil fuels, with some portion of that (~160 Mt per year) ending up in finished products such as plastics. Net emissions of carbon dioxide exceed 3 billion tonnes per annum. The use of bioenergy in the EU is also shown, but is effectively emission neutral. A much smaller portion of the energy system is non-emitting, from sources such as wind, solar and nuclear.
By 2050, the picture looks very different. The non-emitting sector has grown substantially and net emissions are zero. However, actual emissions from the continued use of fossil fuels is 670 million tonnes per year and the total potential emissions from fossil fuel use is 1.13 billion tonnes per year.
Several factors are contributing to the overall net-zero outcome;
- Some fossil fuel is use for making products such as plastics, as is the case today.
- A bioplastics industry has emerged, with 50 million tonnes per year of atmospheric carbon dioxide ending up in finished products.
- There is large scale use (240 million tonnes per year) of CCS in industry, such as in smelters and petrochemical plants.
- There is 620 million tonnes per year of CDR, in two categories;
- 350 million tonnes of BECCS.
- 270 million tonnes of nature based solutions.
While the use of CDR may well decline in the ensuing decades after 2050 and might have vanished completely by the 22nd century as further substitution for fossil fuels permits, the 2050 situation is one of very large scale deployment of technologies and practices that are either non-existent in the EU today or hardly visible. The level of deployment is such that a major commercial solution needs to emerge, driving the business sector to invest in CDR.
That solution could come from within the EU ETS as I discussed in a recent post, or a new mechanism could emerge that forces deployment of CDR through mandate or encourages it through a feed-in tariff. Both have been used successfully to get the renewable energy industry going. Whatever the approach for activating a commercial response, it needs to start soon. Building an industry on the scale shown will take many years and time is in very short supply.
The SWP paper comes to the same conclusion, i.e. start now, but it is already proposing upper deployment limits for individual sectors and overall use of CDR so as to maximise direct mitigation and the shift away from fossil fuels. This is hardly the way to unleash a commercial engine. Those who invest in CDR need to be assured that there isn’t some artificial limit put in place that may in turn limit the return on their investment, particularly if they are early adopters who take on additional commercial risk. In any case, CDR isn’t an inexpensive option that is easy to do – even large scale reforestation in the EU will be a challenge in terms of land use, maintenance, protection and longevity. The case for investing in CDR may well be a hard won battle in the boardroom, with many companies preferring to find direct mitigation options anyway.
The time for turning our minds towards CDR is now, as the EU rolls out its Green Deal and sets the rules for engagement that may well prevail to 2050 and beyond. Although the subject of CDR has been broached and by 2023 the EU Commission wants to put forward a carbon removal certification framework, CDR needs to be a priority within the immediate policy framework that emerges from the European Parliament.
The Worlds urgent needed Energy transition to Truly Carbon Free Power.
My own summary of the situation, which I would like to submit for your consideration is as follows:-
There has been a great deal of correspondence and various articles in the UK Papers recently concerning our Governments policy (or lack of it) in connection with the UK’s future Energy Plans and how/where our future “Green” energy is to be produced and also how to speed up progress.
In the absence of Fossil Fuels, which we all seen to agree must be phased out as rapidly as possible (and banned completely a.s.a.p if 100% Carbon Capture and Sequestration can-not be achieved), just what are we to do? It is now well understood that the transit to acceptable Green energy must be well under way by 2030-35 if future catastrophic loss of Human life, loss of coastal land surfaces and general loss of Species is to be avoided.
My own suggestions are as follows:-
First, it is useless to tie our future to any expansion of Nuclear Fission in its present form. The exorbitant cost of the construction and operation of the new generation nuclear plant now under construction here in the UK (and more contemplated for the future) is ridiculous, due to the time it takes to produce adequate reliable power from this source as well as the thousands of years of on-going cost and safely issues associated with the storage of the inevitable Radio Active waste which makes this form of Nuclear electricity generation unthinkable. Fusion may eventually be a more beneficial and benign source but it still does not exist in any useful, proven form. If ever achieved at the required scale it will, initially at least, still be a costly and inflexible solution which will do little, if anything, to eliminate Global Warming or Climate Change for very many years.
Second, there is actually no shortage of energy available to us, after all the the entire warming problem is caused by the build up of an increasing excess of both Thermal and Kinetic energy within the Atmosphere and Global Biosphere. This increasingly abundant low grade energy has in the past been considered to be more difficult or uneconomic to extract when compared with energy from Fossil Fuels, however it is already available in truly vast quantities (which are growing rapidly as Climate Change progresses) and can be extracted by very many different proven means, most of which are non polluting and which together can quite quickly result in abundant electrical energy being made available.
Third, many of the simplest and most well proven methods of producing the required non polluting electrical energy from the environment are already well known having been developed over many years into the reliable forms with which we are now familiar. Solar Photovoltaic panels are now universally available and are both cheap enough, powerful and simple enough to fulfil most power requirements for those living within or adjacent to the Equatorial Tropics, where there are many desert or available rooftop areas suited to simple deployment. Further North and South on the Planet it is Wind Turbines which have become the simple, proven, large scale electricity generator of choice.
Here in the UK it is unlikely (but not impossible) that power generation using Solar Panels will ever be sufficient to meet more than a fraction of our total National demands, however they will certainly be a useful but probably niche supplier. However we are blessed with truly vast quantities of Wind energy for much of the year and have been exploiting it in a very minor way for a long time. Wind power generation of electricity has a very long track record and because of very recent Technological advances is now capable of easily (though very expensively) being expanded to eventually provide all of the (Electrical) energy we will ever need in the foreseeable future.
In the past when in competition with the unrestricted use of abundant cheap Fossil Fuels, Wind energy has never been commercially viable. However, currently this situation has suddenly changed drastically.
It is now known that to prolong the release of GHGs from Fossil Fuels (in the absence of 100% Carbon Capture and Sequestration) is to commit mass suicide and murder if it is done knowingly. To continue to subsidise and encourage the use of Fossil Fuel as power sources in Developing Countries falls into the same category and cannot be justified or prolonged. However, Wind Turbines are relatively low Technology, easily understood and easily maintained by suitably trained personnel and there is everything to be gained by using and exporting standardised power generation systems based on Wind (or where suitable photovoltaic Solar electricity farms) to provide truly “Green” power to any such Developing country as part of our National Foreign Aid programs.
Not everyone is aware that, when compared to any other existing generator of Electricity, Land based Wind Turbine electrical generation is already the cheapest form of available electrical energy over any extended period of time. Being land based and therefore easily accessed, it is so far the easiest and cheapest way to install such Turbines and to distribute the generated electrical power into the local National Grid. However there are many negatives to this particular form of power source, including excessive land use, visual destruction of the landscape, destruction of irreplaceable Historic sites e.t.c which cause both local and National resistance from the general public to further drastic land based expansion. In its present form such land based Wind generation can not be expanded sufficiently to achieve our present or future power demands.
The answer lies at sea where virtually the same Technology and very similar construction methods have now been in use for much more than a decade with mainly positive results. Siting fixed bottom mounted turbines and columns in shallow offshore waters allows the Turbines to be larger, more efficient and generally more acceptable, if suitably sited. Much of the (diminishing) opposition to offshore generation can be further reduced by the expansion and general adoption of very recently introduced Offshore Floating Wind Generators with their many advantages. If they are initially sited well offshore in the close vicinity of existing Offshore, dying or redundant Oil and Gas production facilities, they will be able to utilise some of the existing infrastructure and many of the empty reservoirs (both liquid and more especially Gas) and will, at least initially, have minimal impact on existing Commercial Fishing grounds (Fishing has long been banned in such areas due to the presence of pipelines and well heads etc).
These floating generators are already available in sizes of about 5 MW each with new units in the pipeline which currently are planned to be between 2 and 4 times larger. These wind farms when suitably expanded, will if sited carefully, easily supply all of our present or future Grid requirements.
Opponents to any Wind Farm developments normally quote the intermittent nature of the Electrical power supply as wind speed varies widely over time. However, this is really only a problem because of the very limited ambition displayed in the present supply plan where the inflexible steady state Nuclear and FF powered generation forms the established base supply and wind is expected to fill in the extra variable peak requirements.
The better plan is to strive to generate all possible National Grid electrical supplies from Wind, indeed to eventually expand this output to several times the UK’s present base energy requirement. In periods of over supply (as is often already achieved), the excess power can be drawn off and utilised for “Green“ Hydrogen Generation. Later, as the increasing total available Wind generated electricity allows, this surplus can be stored or used e.g. Water (Hydro) pumped storage, Compressed Air pumped storage, pure Fresh water production from sea water, etc etc, it can also be used to power devices which capture CO2 from the Atmosphere or convert Methane from existing (or future) natural Gas Fields into “Blue” Hydrogen by removing the Carbon from it. There are many possible ways of utilising any such surplus of electricity when tapping off any variable excess and leaving leaving a stable and controlled Grid supply.
If wind power is used for Hydrogen production the “Green” Hydrogen can be stored (along with any “Blue” Hydrogen) in adjacent depleted gas reservoirs which form a buffer from which it can initially be transmitted ashore and used to enhance existing Natural Gas Grid supplies to both Domestic and Industrial (even Power generating) users. At a later stage, it can completely replace the Methane in our existing/upgraded Gas pipelines. In the very near future, any produced Hydrogen which is in excess of our own National requirements will be cooled, liquified and can be distributed (World Wide) bringing about or supporting a new Global Hydrogen economy. This approach to future Wind Based Grid Power would form the start of a fantastic period of growth and if we do not seize this opportunity other countries will. Such vessels are already in operation in prototype form.
This line of planning towards a future unlimited scale of power production allows turbine design optimisation to be followed by optimised, standardised production, rapid deployment and future enlarging of the floating Wind farm Power Generators towards a single simplified type which can initially work with (and at the same time be expanded to replace) existing power stations as they are phased out, particularly as FF Power stations and existing forms of Carbon based Natural Gas supplies are wound down.
The present practice of shutting down wind output when it becomes excessive is a nonsense, why pay to shut down green power supplies in preference to subsidising polluting carbon based sources?
Even in their present prototype form, floating Wind power can be generated and passed into the UK National Grid at considerably less than 1/2 the price of the Nuclear electricity which will be generated from the as yet unfinished new UK power stations. In addition such wind generated electricity can be introduced in a fraction of the time it takes to construct new Nuclear. By taking a standardised, mass production approach to manufacture, assembly and installation this can be reduced to about 1/10th of the cost of current Nuclear. Similarly by standardising and simplifying the installation process, wind will require about 1/10th the deployment time as well. UK industry can be transformed and the standardised designs could be deployed (or even have components manufactured) any where in the UK, Europe, or indeed the World, that has viable wind and suitable sea space.
Initially here in the UK and Europe, very intense efforts (and Financial encouragement) must be applied to the optimisation of size, design, material development, deployment and operational development of Floating Wind Power units and their moorings etc. If these optimised units are rapidly developed for the Mass production of components, rapid assembly, ease of transportation and rapid standardised installation they can easily be playing a major role in UK Grid Supply long before 2030.
If the individual Turbine Generator units are designed for “Plug and Play” installation into a live grid and to be maintained largely by being individually un-plugged and brought ashore on (say) a 10 year cycle for Survey, refurbishment and updating then it should be possible to provide them with an efficient working life of up to about a century without any significant disruption to the working “Smart” Grid System. They can almost certainly also be designed to achieve 100% recycling of their entire material content.
This approach could start quite slowly as experience and confidence is gained but it can be very rapidly ramped up to meet almost any future energy requirement and the abundant electrical energy can be utilised to power any conceivable form of future Green Society, (including the ever power hungry EU). If lead by the existing Oil Majors (seen to be be transformed into truly “Green” Energy suppliers) they will be able to take the leaf in opening up this entire energy path and re-grow their future and their reputations.
At this stage we cannot immediately stop Global Warming but the availability of unlimited energy from Green sources will much reduce the scale of damage and the duration of the problem. With more thought and new ideas it may even provide both the time and energy we need to reverse and even eliminate the climate problem as future solutions are found.
One further point on this Climate Change issue. By removing at least some of the surplus kinetic energy from the environment as well as (in the near future) supplying all of the energy required for both Civilisation and large-scale direct Carbon Capture, very large scale deployment of Wind (and in future other) environmental energy extraction methods are at present the ONLY means of safely mitigating the worsening weather expected in the future.
Retired Offshore Marine Project Engineer. (Ex Shell Shell Tankers UK, Shell International Marine and Shell STASCO)
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