As the world grapples with climate change concerns, carbon capture and storage could be the holy grail for continued fossil fuel use. Projects have come online that prove its feasibility, but costs can be prohibitive. Nonetheless, incentives have spurred continued research and development, and new technology may offer hope for the future.
About 10 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border, in the city of Estevan, the eighth-largest city in Saskatchewan, Canada, is the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project, referred to as BD3. Located within a cluster of other facilities that includes a coal-fired power plant, BD3 (POWER’s Plant of the Year in 2015—see “SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project Wins POWER’s Highest Award”) was the world’s first fully integrated and full-chain CCS facility.
Burning fossil fuels and other chemical and biological processes produces carbon dioxide (CO2), which is widely believed to be a cause of climate change. CCS is the process of trapping the CO2 and storing it, thus preventing release to the Earth’s atmosphere. According to the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, CCS may capture up to 90% of the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels used in power generation and other industrial processes.
CCS follows a process: capture, then transport and store (Figure 1). Different technologies allow CO2 to be separated from exhaust gases from any process that emits CO2. This includes from electrical power generation, as well as many other industrial processes that produce CO2 as a byproduct or emission. It may be captured at pre- or post-combustion phase, or in the “oxyfuel” combustion process—one where pure oxygen is used instead of air as the primary oxidant. CO2 is then transported to a safe and often remote location for storage, such as a depleted oil or gas field, usually underground. Because the U.S. supply chain has a ready line of experience transporting CO2, it is expected that the nation can meet the challenge of safely transporting it to areas where it may be safely stored. Safe storage conditions are usually found within geological rock formation located deep beneath ground.
1. The carbon capture and storage (CCS) process begins by removing CO2 at the source. The gas is then compressed, transported, and injected deep underground. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The BD3 facility captures CO2, avoiding its release into the atmosphere. The nearby coal-fired power unit produces 115 MW of baseload electricity. The facility reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a million tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to removing 250,000 cars from roads, according to the owners), captures 90% of the CO2, 100% of the SO2, 50% of the NOx, and some other harmful particulates emitted.
The technology has unfolded slowly, but seems to be picking up momentum as hopeful energy producers and environmentalists see CCS as a means of enabling fossil fuel power generation, while reducing otherwise harmful GHG emissions.
Slow, but Steady Progress
The worldwide progress of CCS technology has been sluggish. But according to the Global CCS Institute, there are currently 23 CCS projects in construction or operation around the world. These can be found in the U.S., Canada, Australia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Europe. These existing facilities capture CO2 from sectors such as waste incineration, cement production, iron and steel, hydrogen, gas processing, and power generation facilities. Advocates of CCS are optimistic and hopeful.
“Carbon capture and storage is a critical technology if we are to achieve the Paris agreement well-below-2C goal,” said Judith Shapiro, a spokesperson for the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, located in London, UK. “It is vital to reducing emissions from energy intensive industries, heat, and power. When combined with steam methane reforming of natural gas, CCS can produce low-carbon hydrogen, which provides a large-scale, low-cost solution to decarbonizing heat and transport. CCS can also be applied to sustainable bio-energy, thereby delivering negative emissions.”
But the world still struggles to reduce GHG emissions. According to Michael Monea, president and CEO of the International CCS Knowledge Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, other than increasing efficiencies of vehicles and the introduction of heavily subsidized renewables, significant efforts to meaningfully reduce GHGs have not been implemented. “Very few capture plants have been built on large emission point-sources,” he said. “Increasingly, though, there is a reality setting in that the expectations of meeting GHG reduction targets far outmatch the ability to do so.”
This all comes at a price. Nevertheless, such a price factors into the benefit: reduced GHG emissions.
The Cost Conundrum
The world struggles to reduce GHG emissions. Doing so is difficult. New facilities require capital investment. There has to be discernible payback in terms of the goals it helps achieve. With more facilities coming online, there are better experience levels and new ways to innovate.
Monea said carbon capture is often characterized as expensive; however, this may be changing. “I think we’re on the cusp of a new trend with the advent of second-generation CCS,” he said. “This is based on the learnings of four years in operation at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam CCS Facility (BD3)—the world’s first post-combustion carbon capture plant, which was designed to capture up to one million tons of CO2 per year from a lignite coal electrical generation plant.”
Driving down the cost may be accomplished in innovate ways as well. “The Achilles’ heel of carbon capture has always been the economics, or more accurately, the lack of economics,” said Mark Cann, head of system design and development for Florida-based Cryo Energy Tech. “The changes that are taking place now are all about driving down the cost of carbon capture. Commons ways to drive down the operating cost is to generate revenue by selling the captured carbon instead of attempting to store the carbon for life. For example, designing a system for the sole purpose of supplying carbon for synfuels can lower the cost of capturing the CO2 by sharing the components and energy input from the synthesizing process. Also, there’s more stranded and ‘wrong time’ electricity available to power the capture systems, which also lowers the operating cost.”
Monea added that there’s now more convincing evidence that the cost equation of carbon capture will self-correct. He cited the Shand CCS Feasibility Study—a study about the results of the BD3 facility. The study showed that next-generation plants not only can capture emissions from other industrial sources like cement, natural gas electrical generation, and metallurgical plants, but at a cost of $45 per ton of CO2 captured—a remarkable 67% cost reduction per ton of CO2 captured, as well as 92% in potential savings to power plant integration capital costs.
“Governments have tended to look for silver-bullet technologies rather than improving reliable engineered plants,” said Monea. “Industry does not want to reduce profits by building a capture plant unless they are forced by a government regulation or the public wanting a reduction in GHGs.”
Clear Skies Ahead?
If integration costs are reduced, as well as those of carbon capture, the outlook for CCS is bright. New and affordable CCS projects, with telling results, are ahead. Projects like BD3 in Saskatchewan will continue to provide use-case models to demonstrate the possibilities of eliminating GHGs with CCS. In addition, new incentives are aiding the effort.
“A federal tax credit passed earlier this year could increase the amount of carbon being stored underground,” explained Shapiro.
The “45Q” tax credit is similar to the wind production tax credit. Instead of a credit for wind production, it credits the capture and geologic storage of a ton of CO2, which would have been otherwise emitted by an industrial facility or power plant. The revamped 45Q tax credit boosts the amount of money available to companies willing to capture and store carbon emissions in geologic formations or use CO2 to extract oil from existing wells.
In parallel to CCS, others are pushing for natural means to achieve the same goal, such as planting more trees. Marvin Nash, general manager of Encore Green Environmental, said his number one priority is increasing carbon sequestration. “We believe that the best ‘technology’ is nature’s technology. Carbon capture and storage happens through photosynthesis, as vegetation grows. Plants and trees are made to capture and store carbon dioxide. The added bonus is that they also release oxygen. This is the only literally ‘green’ solution there is to carbon sequestration.”
Green solutions of all types will help build a new consensus of thinking: our collective intellect, via science, can help abate carbon emissions (Figure 2) and ultimately bring clear skies for the world’s energy production and consumption. “Alongside Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, the United States is one of the most interested countries in both carbon capture and storage,” said Matthias Alleckna, an energy industry analyst at EnergyRates.ca, an energy rate comparison website headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta. “The leading carbon storage-related companies in the world are located in the U.S., and they have made real progress in researching affordable techniques. Such studies are making scientists and companies reconsider how they view carbon capture, and we can expect some big news regarding that subject in 2019.”
Alleckna said people can expect more CCS facilities worldwide in the years ahead. “Multiple carbon capture and storage projects are popping up around the world,” he said. “It’s both a technological and an environmental race. The winners will be the first ones to make it not only viable but also profitable. Of course, the main concern should be about the environment. Still, making it a profitable technique will incentivize large companies to pay more attention to the subject.”
As time marches on, the Boundary Dam CCS project and others, aid industrial energy producers and consumers in continuing their efforts to meet commitments of the Paris climate agreement. CCS is one link in the chain of progress to bring harmony to energy production in a busy world that relies on it so much, with a social responsibility to respect the earth.
The late Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin who started Earth Day in 1968, which subsequently led President Richard Nixon to found the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, stated in a speech on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day: “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity…that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come.” CCS, perhaps, helps meet that end. ■
—Jim Romeo (www.JimRomeo.net) is a freelance writer focused on business and technology topics.