Climate solutions: Carbon capture takes off

Carbon capture and storage takes carbon dioxide – the main gas responsible for climate change – from power plants and industry, and disposes of it safely for the long term.

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It is the ugly duckling of climate solutions. While renewable energy gathers green plaudits and nuclear power remains a major — if controversial — energy source, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has struggled to take flight.

But after years of gloom and frustration, delegates at the Global CCS Institute’s annual meeting in Abu Dhabi last week were finally optimistic. “CCS in the power sector is now a reality with the world’s first large-scale CCS project operating at Boundary Dam, Canada,” noted Brad Page, the institute’s chief executive. Another such project is nearing completion at Kemper County in Mississippi. China has dramatically stepped up its pace over the past year or so, while two projects in the UK — White Rose in Yorkshire and Peterhead in Scotland — are being designed.

Carbon capture and storage takes carbon dioxide — the main gas responsible for climate change — from power plants and industry, and disposes of it safely for the long term, either underground or in the form of stable minerals or useful products. Contrary to the views of its detractors, it is now a proven technology, but needs more experience to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

Carbon dioxide can be used in oilfields to strip out more oil. This enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is dramatically lower-carbon than traditional production, and the process can be tuned to maximise the amount of carbon captured.

Abu Dhabi also has a world-leading project. A joint venture between Masdar and Adnoc is constructing a system to collect 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from the Emirates Steel plant in Mussafah and pipe it for EOR in fields near Ruwais. Starting from 2016, this will be the first application of CCS in the iron and steel sector.

Such carbon capture in industry is even more important than in power generation — electricity can be generated from renewables or nuclear power, but there is no known way to make iron or cement with solar and wind energy.

Successful deployment of CCS is essential to tackling climate change successfully. By 2020, projects around the world could be capturing about 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equal to about a third of what the UAE emits. By 2035, CCS could save a monumental $1 trillion in the cost of reducing emissions from power generation.

Yet carbon capture is only just starting to receive the support in money and policies it requires — from an estimated $2tn spent on “clean” energy since 2004, just $20 billion has gone to CCS, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

It is an essential technology for the Arabian Gulf region in particular. Maturing oilfields will benefit from enhanced recovery. Abu Dhabi has to reinject a large part of its gas production to maintain pressure in the oilfields. Replacing this with carbon dioxide has a triple benefit — reducing emissions, liberating more oil and saving gas, which reduces expensive imports. Denmark's Maersk Oil is pioneering a technology, TriGen, which generates power efficiently from gas, yields carbon dioxide for EOR, and produces drinking-quality water.

Reducing the Gulf’s soaring greenhouse gas emissions is good for the environment — and also heads off the risk of political pressure or trade sanctions against heavy polluters.

And it creates “carbon space” for the region to produce its giant oil and gas reserves over the rest of this century — otherwise a large part of those hydrocarbons will have to be left aside for ever.

For these reasons, CCS is one of the key environmental technologies the Gulf must pursue to assure its long-term future. The Masdar and Adnoc teams deserve credit for their hard work on the Emirates Steel project — they and their other GCC counterparts need to keep up the momentum with further ventures. The ugly duckling of climate technologies may be about to become a swan.

Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and author of Capturing Carbon

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