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Carbon con: does capturing carbon from power stations really work?

Carbon con: does capturing carbon from power stations really work?
11 Mar
Capturing carbon from power stations and other high-carbon processes is often described as a vital part of the overall strategy to control CO2 emissions – but does it really work?

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been hailed as an important weapon in the struggle to bring down carbon emissions and keep global warming below 1.5ºC. In an ideal world, fossil fuels would be phased out, it is argued, but in the meantime we need a way to keep producing energy while trapping carbon emissions. CCS is a process which, in theory, can capture carbon dioxide from large power stations and safely store it.

Many non- and inter-governmental organisations are now calling for a major increase in investment in CCS facilities. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are currently 18 large-scale projects worldwide that capture just 33 million tonnes of CO₂ – less than 0.1 per cent of total carbon emissions. A 2019 report by the IEA envisaged a global decarbonisation strategy in which these present CCS activities are scaled up to trap 115 gigatonnes of CO₂ by 2060.

Carbon Capture plants, such as this one in Texas, have been found to be less effective than previously thoughtCarbon Capture plants, such as this one in Texas, have been found to be less effective than previously thought

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also stated that CCS will play an important role in limiting global warming. The panel has called for CCS to achieve 13 per cent of the world’s necessary emission reductions by 2050.

However, while CCS promises much, with only a handful of facilities actually in operation, it has been difficult to analyse how well they actually work. Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has analysed recently released public data from two CCS operations: a coal power plant with carbon capture added, and a plant that removes carbon from the air directly using a chemical process. The results cast doubt on the efficiency and safety of CCS. Jacobson now asserts, in no uncertain terms, that the entire concept does more harm than good. ‘There is no existing CCS facility tied to electric power in North America that actually produces any benefit whatsoever,’ he says.

To reach this conclusion, Jacobson calculated the net CO₂ reduction and total cost of the carbon capture process for the two facilities. In doing so he accounted for the electricity needed to run the carbon capture equipment (in both cases this came from natural gas) and the combustion and upstream emissions resulting from that electricity – upstream emissions being those released when mining and transporting any source of fuel.

Jacobson says that the most common estimates of carbon capture technologies don’t include these upstream factors. As a result, they tend to predict capture of 85 to 90 per cent of carbon emissions. His analysis found, however, that once upstream parameters were included, the equipment captured the equivalent of only ten to eleven per cent of the emissions produced, averaged over 20 years. Even without accounting for upstream emissions, the equipment associated with the coal plant was only 55.4 per cent efficient over six months, on average.

Carbon Capture methods currently just aid further fossil fuel extractionCarbon Capture methods currently aid further fossil fuel extraction

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In response, proponents might argue that CCS plants could be run off renewables alone, which would eliminate some of these problems, but Jacobson still concludes that it would be better to use that renewable electricity to simply replace coal or natural gas electricity rather than mitigate it. This is partly because of the extremely high cost of building CCS plants and also because the process does nothing to reduce air pollution. ‘Carbon dioxide is not the only relevant parameter,’ says Jacobson. ‘You need to look at the air pollutants coming from these plants, air pollutants that actually increase with CCS because you need energy to run the equipment.’

Another issue stems from what happens to the CO₂ once it is captured. ‘The original plan was to bury all the CO₂ deep underground,’ explains Jacobson. Indeed, a recent combined study from The University of Texas at Austin, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the Equinor Research Center looked at the amount of geological space available in rock formations around the world and concluded that it is fully possible to develop enough CO₂ injection wells over a short period to meet the IPCC goals.

But Jacobson asserts that because this would be so expensive to achieve, it probably won’t happen. Instead, captured CO₂ is often used in industrial processes, many of which can result in it being leaked back into the atmosphere. ‘What they do instead – and it’s one of the only ways that they make money out of CCS right now – is to pipe the CO₂ to an oil field and then push it underground so that it binds with oil and makes it less dense,’ says Jacobson. ‘This allows oil to float to the surface faster.’ It is estimated that 50 per cent of the CO₂ leaks back into the air during this process. ‘And, you’re still pushing up more oil, so that means we’re going to burn more oil,’ he adds. ‘The only [viable] financial method of keeping CCS alive is just making things worse. The whole thing is a scam – I call it the Theranos of energy,’ says Jacobson, referring to the famously disgraced health firm.

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