Why does the UK need to invest in carbon capture and storage?

The CCUS (Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage) Cost Challenge Taskforce recently delivered their report to the Government which puts forward a strategy to develop large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the UK. The key message outlined in the report, Delivering clean growth, is that the Government needs to act urgently to invest in CCS if it is to meet its goal of having projects delivered and operational from the mid-2030s. Without this, the UK will not meet its emissions reduction target, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.

Geoff Maitland, Professor of Energy Engineering at the Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, and Director of the Qatar Carbonates and Carbon Storage Research Centre (QCCSRC), is a member of the CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce. He explains what carbon capture and storage means, and why it’s so vital in tackling climate change.


Q: Let’s start by talking about carbon capture and storage (CCS), what does that actually mean and why is it so important?

GM: CCUS is Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage.  It is a process by which carbon dioxide (CO2), the most abundant greenhouse gas produced by the combustion of fossil fuels whose increasing concentration in the atmosphere is causing major climate change, is captured as it is emitted from power generation and industrial plants, compressed to a high density state and then transported by pipeline or tanker to an underground geological storage site where it is trapped and sealed in for permanent storage.  Small amounts of this CO2 (about 1%) can be utilised as a feedstock to produce products such as polymers or solid carbonate-based building materials as an alternative means of storage…hence the ‘U’ in CCUS.

The process is an essential part of the portfolio of measured needed to cap atmospheric CO2 levels at 450 parts per million (ppm) in accordance with International Panel on Climate Change targets and in particular the 1.5-2 degrees celsuis mean global temperature rise limits agreed at the COP21 conference in Paris in 2015.  Energy efficiency measures and the introduction of low-carbon forms of energy such as renewables and nuclear will not be sufficient to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to meet these targets; much of the world will continue to use fossil fuels well into the second half of this century and by 2050, we will need to be capturing and storing 10 gigtatonnes (Gt) of CO2 per year globally.  Today we capture and store about 32 million tonnes (Mt) annually so a step-change in CCUS capacity is required within the next decade.

In the UK, we will not meet our legally binding carbon budgets after 2030 (the fifth budget and beyond) so large-scale deployment of CCUS is required by the mid-2020s to give the capacity to capture enough CO2 to meet the carbon budgets up to 2050.


Q: If CCS is so important, why hasn’t the Government already done more to invest in it?

GM: The major problem with CCUS is its cost and who pays for it.  The technology exists and has been deployed outside the UK for some time, particularly in Norway and the US.  In Norway this is driven by a realistic carbon tax – it is cheaper to use CCUS than to release the CO2 to the atmosphere.  In the US, injecting CO2 into underground depleted oil and gas reservoirs can be used to recover additional hydrocarbon from existing assets before the CO2 is stored there, which again largely offsets the cost of CCUS.  Neither of these means of monetising CO2 and hence covering some or all of the costs of CCUS, currently exist in the UK.

The approach of the UK government has been to provide funding (~£2bn) for two competitions over the past decade to encourage private companies to invest in CCUS demonstration projects, as a pre-cursor to growing a CCUS industry to capture and store the ~150 Mt of CO2 each year that the UK will need to in order to meet carbon budgets beyond 2030.  However, the financial burden on industry of covering the full-chain capture-transport-storage costs and the high projected cost of decarbonised electricity from these small scale projects, together with the government withdrawing funding at critical times, resulted in none of these projects coming to fruition.  The Taskforce was charged, therefore, with addressing some major questions: how can the cost of CCUS at commercial scale be reduced so that it is competitive with other decarbonisation routes? In other sectors apart from power generation (such as industrial manufacturing and heating) which are more difficult to decarbonise, does CCUS provide a cost-viable solutions? How can the risks, liabilities and costs be shared between the public and private sectors in a way that makes major private investment attractive? In other words, what new business models and policy measures are required?



Q: Instead of storing waste CO2, couldn’t we just reduce our generation of CO2 altogether?

GM: Avoiding producing CO2 from the use of fossil fuels has to be the primary strategy for mitigating climate change.  So using less energy and using as much renewable or other low-carbon energy (such as nuclear) is a priority for much of the industrialised world.  Globally it is estimated that this will reduce CO2 levels by ~80% of what is required by 2050 – but that leaves the missing 10Gt CO2 per year referred to above that will have to be removed using CCUS.  Also some sectors are very difficult to decarbonise using renewable electricity: energy intensive industries are one example, especially cement and iron and steel which generate much CO2 as a by-product as well as using a lot of energy.  If we use hydrogen for heating and transport, we could produce it by using renewable electricity for electrolysis of water, but for the foreseeable future this will be significantly more expensive than steam reforming of methane coupled to CCUS to remove the CO2 co-product.  Also, many developing countries, such as India and China, have huge coal and oil/gas reserves which give them the cheapest routes to building their industrial economies.  So they need to have access to cost-effective CCUS to ensure their own clean development in the short to medium term.

So we should indeed accelerate the routes by which we can maintain the quality of life by using less energy, low-carbon energy sources and low-GHG producing manufacturing processes.  This goal may be achieved globally by the end of this century, but the chances are that we may need or choose to continue to use fossil fuels to 2100 and beyond.  This is why CCUS needs to be developed and deployed commercially on a global scale to enable these options for as long as they are needed.


Q: The report refers to ‘clusters’ of CCS operations, why are these so central to the plans?

GM: A critical element of CCUS is that it is not a single process but a complex chain of inter-linked processes: capture, transport and utilisation and/or storage.  It is unviable for one CO2 generator to pay for all the transport and storage infrastructure that is required to make these viable.  So the solution recommended by the Taskforce is to separate these out: for the government to facilitate CO2 transport pipeline networks, similar to the gas grid, that can distribute the CO2 to suitably located offshore storage sites or plants using CO2. Then a whole range of CO2 generators can feed their captured CO2 into the same transport and storage  system, paying a fee based on the amount of CO2 they put into the system so they share the costs of the infrastructure on the basis of use.

Key elements of minimising CCUS costs further are managing the entire CCUS chain as an integrated system and optimising the juxtaposition of the CO2 sources and sinks.  All this points to CCUS systems being developed as industrial clusters, co-located geographically and comprising of different types of CO2 generators – power plants, hydrogen producers (for decarbonised heating and transport) from natural gas, industrial manufacturers such as cement, iron and steel, petrochemicals – and CO2 ‘offtakers’ or users such as polyurethane plastic manufacturers, carbonation minerals and food/drink utilisers of CO2.  Such clusters already exist (such as the Teesside Collective, Merseyside and Grangemouth) but require the right policy and business environment to develop as centres of decarbonised products.



Q: What are the next steps with this plan?

GM: The next stage is for the government to respond to the Taskforce Report over the next few months; the initial response of the Energy and Clean Growth Minister, Claire Perry, has been highly favourable. It is anticipated that  the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will lead on developing a CCUS Deployment Roadmap in the autumn, working closely with the Taskforce Members and the industry on this.  A key event for evaluating progress on the Taskforce recommendations will be the ‘Accelerating CCUS: A Global Conference to Progress CCUS’ conference taking place 28-29 November in Edinburgh, Scotland and organised by the UK government with international partners. Incorporating two days of CCUS focused events, the conference will gather speakers, delegates from governments, industry, academia and leading experts from around the world to discuss the value of CCUS, business models, the future of CCUS technologies and practical solutions and actions to accelerate the deployment of CCUS globally. The Global Conference will run alongside a CCUS Summit, which will be co-hosted by the UK government and the International Energy Agency on 28 November, bringing together world energy leaders from government and industry to discuss concrete actions to scale up CCUS globally.

Further details on government response and the Global Conference can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/uk-carbon-capture-and-storage-government-funding-and-support


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