Carbon Capture Technology: Does Humanity Need It?
So far, large energy companies with experience in large-scale gas management have refrained from making significant investments in these techniques because carbon prices are still not high enough to break even carbon capture and storage technologies.
However, this view has been rapidly changing as investors demand from companies to improve their environmental reputations. For example, in January, Exxon Mobil Corp. pledged to spend $3 billion over the next five years in carbon capture plants. However, this amount of investment is minimal and is more of a PR attempt.
According to experts, removing carbon dioxide is likely to have four main routes to capture carbon dioxide: air, land, ocean and rocks. Without dwelling on all the currently discussed carbon dioxide capture projects, I will briefly mention only the most promising ones.
Green removal of carbon dioxide will make sense if the energy for this work is taken from renewable sources that use solar, wind or energy from water currents. To cut costs, one can use special zones on our planet where sun, wind or water flows have the highest power.
The main problem in capturing carbon dioxide from the air is its high cost compared to its direct interception at a source of pollution - a factory or a power plant. Now a typical station for processing atmospheric air and its purification from carbon spends for each ton from $600 to $1,000. But it is necessary to accumulate gigatonnes of gas. Therefore, experts believe that short-term special attention should be paid to removing carbon dioxide from the ocean, more precisely, from its upper layers.
The ocean can absorb about 85 percent of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Therefore, if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise, the oceans will continue to absorb it.
The first project is relatively straightforward in terms of implementation. It can be an automated surface or submarine ship anchored in a stream of water. The ocean current drives turbine blades and generates energy used to capture gas from the atmosphere or water. Onboard the same vessel, carbon dioxide is converted into a non-volatile form – for subsequent disposal or sale. In the decomposition of dioxide into carbon and oxygen, the pressed blocks of carbon black can be dumped overboard as biologically harmless and buried on the ocean floor.
As a source of energy, it is advantageous to use, for example, the Gulf Stream ocean current. Note that the installation in the Drake Passage, which is the narrowest passage around Antarctica, is 4.6 times more gainful than in the Gulf Stream. However, due to storm waves and icebergs passing through the strait, it is advisable to place the vessel underwater with the ability to adjust the diving depth.
It is not difficult to establish that Antarctica is an ideal place to place power-generating equipment for carbon dioxide captures. It is the windiest and coldest place on Earth, with wind speeds of up to 20 m/s or more. In addition, in some areas of the continent, the average annual temperature can reach minus 60 degrees Celsius, making it easier to freeze carbon dioxide from the air.
Another promising method of carbon dioxide fixation is to drain fertile soils to gain access to soil air with its high concentrations, sometimes ranging from 5 to 20 percent. Preliminary analysis shows that the gas drainage of 1 square kilometer of an area can cost $200,000-300,000. Considering the 50-year service life of the plastic elements of the drainage system and capturing up to 800 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, the unit cost of gas evolution will be $5-7.5 per tonne. At a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, the prices of its release would become 10 times less than at an equilibrium concentration.
It has now become clear that to stabilize the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in addition to limiting its emissions, special efforts will be needed to capture it. Since the private sector is not yet ready to fully invest in such technologies, practical steps will be required from the responsible world's powers to organize and finance such work. Perhaps even more critical will be international cooperation. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does not recognize national boundaries.
Carbon Capture Technology: What Governments Should Do？
According to the Paris Agreement on climate change, to avoid catastrophic consequences for our planet, humanity needs to halve global emissions over the next decade and reach zero emissions by mid-century. As discussed in the previous article, many countries that are serious about combating climate change have already begun working on various innovative technologies for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Those technologies can reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the most harmful industrial sectors, such as burning coal, oil and gas, electricity generation, and hydrogen production, and reduce their concentration by extracting gas from the atmosphere and burying it underground or underwater.
To make progress in the CCS processes, one must complete a few essential tasks. First, to create an economic environment for investment either through direct incentives (grants, tax breaks, green bonds) or by determining the cost of emission reductions (emission standards, caps, and trade) to provide infrastructure for carbon transportation and storage and to develop a regulatory framework for new technologies.
Governments can and should stimulate low-carbon investment flows by introducing higher carbon costs that reflect pollution levels. There are different ways to establish the price of carbon. For example, in the U.S., the most progressive CCS incentive became tax breaks, encouraging capture and permanent carbon storage. Other measures include emission control systems, carbon trading, or additional carbon taxes.
In that area, the High-Level Commission on Carbon Pricing recommended a carbon price of $40-80 a ton by 2020 to drive a change consistent with the Paris Agreement. The International Monetary Fund recently proposed bringing the carbon price to $75 a ton by 2030, up from today's global average of $2 a ton. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), it will be possible to capture and store more than 450 million tons of carbon dioxide at a carbon cost of $40 per ton. Most importantly, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, investments in the energy transition can support economic growth by about $26 trillion and create more than 65 million jobs by 2030 compared with business as usual.
According to the IEA, total energy investment totaled more than $1.8 trillion in 2019, falling about 20 percent in 2020 due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. With that, investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency have also declined. But according to the Global CCS Institute, total carbon capture and storage capacity has grown by a third in 2020.
But even this impressive growth rate will not be enough to meet global climate targets. Only 26 commercial CCS units exist globally, capable of capturing approximately 40 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, mainly associated with its use for enhanced oil recovery. However, if we include projects under construction or development, total carbon dioxide capture capacity has increased to over 110 million tons per year in 2020 from about 85 million tons in 2019.
Most of the experts agreed that to achieve zero emissions, the capacity of CCS must increase more than a hundredfold by 2050. Therefore, a more assertive policy to stimulate rapid investment in CCS is long overdue. At the end of last year, 65 CCS "commercial" properties worldwide were under operation, including three under construction and 13 under development. The IEA estimates that in 2020 alone, nearly $4 billion were invested in CCS projects.
According to the report, the U.S. already has the most significant number of CCS facilities in operation and continues to lead the way. For example, it hosts 12 of the 17 new commercial properties added to the overall portfolio of projects in 2020. The CCS has also evolved into a unique area of bipartisan agreement in the U.S. In addition, according to the report, the U.S. Department of Energy has spurred an increase in the list of CCS projects under development, and in 2020 it has committed or disbursed more than $270 million in co-financing agreements.
In addition to the increase in the carbon price under the EU emissions trading scheme, the European Commission announced in July 2021 a competition to develop new CCS technologies through their Innovation Fund worth €10 billion (about $12.2 billion). Across the channel, the UK government announced in November a 10-point zero-crossing plan that includes CCS as one of its key pillars. The announcement had £1 billion (about $14.1 billion) in funding for CCS infrastructure to store 10 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. It became the first quantitative storage target reached anywhere in the world. Two years ago, the UK and EU had achieved an essential milestone in the field of regulation in connection with the adoption of the so-called London Protocol. This interim solution allows the transboundary transport of carbon dioxide.
Along with electrification, hydrogen, and sustainable bioenergy, new carbon capture and storage technologies will play a critical role in the planet's ecological balance. This group of technologies will contribute to both the direct reduction of emissions and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Given the high cost of technology and the inability of the private sector to embark on large-scale research and development on CCS, we are all expecting authentic leadership from the governments of leading countries. There is simply no time left for the buildup and delay.
Carbon capture technology: China is going to move fast
△ A photovoltaic power generation station in a village in China's Jiangxi Province. /CFP
China's pledge to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 is genuinely ambitious and impressive. Delivering on this promise will require all the latest scientific and technological solutions to emissions reduction and carbon capture.
This article focuses on the fact that China is now well-positioned to demonstrate global leadership in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Along with ensuring its energy security, such efforts will support the country's other strategic sectors of sustainable development.
"China cannot achieve carbon neutrality (on schedule) without CCUS [carbon capture, utilization and storage]," said Li Xiaochun, professor at the Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
But, the world's second economy is currently facing challenges in applying CCS. Now, Chinese scientists have in-depth knowledge of most of the CCS technologies; however, the scope of their application in the industry remains small. The facts speak for themselves – at present in China, only one-hundredth of a percent of all emissions are subject to carbon capture.
Estimates based on data from the Global CCS Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy show that the U.S., the industry leader, can capture much more, or about 0.5 percent of its annual net carbon emissions.
Significant initial investment and high operating costs prevent both public and private companies from investing in CCUS technology. China has completed just 9 carbon capture demonstration projects and 12 recycling and storage projects, according to a report released earlier this year by a research group from the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning (CAEP).
For over a decade, China has had the most significant number of CCS pilot projects in the world. The initial focus was on upgrading existing fossil fuel energy and industrial plants to understand how the capture technology system works on a small scale.
These pilot applications covered various capture technologies such as post- or pre-combustion capture, oxyfuel capture, hydrogen capture from coal, and so on. Technologists have successfully tested carbon capture technology at a steel mill near Beijing.
In this decade, to achieve its recently announced ambitious peak emissions targets, the country must aggressively move from small to large-scale projects. To do this, China must turn to its successful track record of developing renewable energy sources. Li Jia, an assistant professor at the China-UK Low-Carbon College at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, drew a parallel with how government subsidies have helped reduce the cost of solar cell manufacturing over the past decade.
△ An electric bus runs on a rural road in Huichang County, Ganzhou City, Jiangxi Province, February 22, 2021. /CFP
The government is currently taking the same approach to stimulate the market to spur the growth of electric vehicles through the demonstration of electrification of transport and the use of hydrogen in public transportation.
Despite the increased attention from the government over the past 10 years, experts believe that improvements of Chinese laws and regulations related to CCS technologies are still needed to the development of the sector. Unlike its approach to other environmentally friendly innovations such as renewable energy, China has yet to legislate the use of CCS.
Professor Wei Ning, a member of the CAS Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics, suggested that China consider introducing incentives like the U.S.'s 45Q federal tax credit for companies that capture carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery or geological storage.
Deploying CCS will not happen overnight. China has already made progress with its small pilot projects and international cooperation efforts. But this progress has not yet led to the development of large-scale projects.
Learning from large-scale CCS demonstration projects will provide China with an opportunity to become a CCS leader by offering competitive low carbon technologies to the world. Besides, internationally available experience in implementing successful large-scale projects should be used at the national level when deploying CCS projects in China.
The next decade will be critical for the demonstration and deployment of large-scale CCS projects. Some observers even believe that China's carbon market will one day merge with the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS), as setting a single global carbon price is essential. An EU-China High-Level Panel on ETS is already in place to promote cooperation and knowledge sharing.
Large-scale CCS projects are currently the only solution to reduce emissions from vital heavy industries in the next decade and the foreseeable future. As China continues to grow, it will become necessary to decarbonize more and more manufacturing processes.
New practices and business models, especially the experience of large-scale CCS deployments in commercial operations through proven pilot projects, will help decarbonize flue gas emissions from cement manufacturing processes, iron and steel manufacturing, chemicals, refineries, and power generation.