photo credit : jo

Dead End UK : Killing Time instead of Cracking Carbon
by Jo Abbess
6th January 2008

Wasting Time on Carbon Capture

Illuminating conversation at a New Year's party this week : I found out that the British Government is killing time over Climate Change, by chasing dead-end technologies.

Instead of concentrating on delivering significant Carbon cuts, the United Kingdom is following up low-value, low-performance options because they can be made attractive to private investment.

In order to fulfill the national commitment of a 60% cut in Carbon Dioxide emissions by 2050 under the Climate Change Bill, thinking clearly in the cold light of dawn brought me to the realisation that there needs to be serious investment in sustainable energy.

Not this tinkering-at-the-edges approach, trying to stimulate business response with flashy toy technologies, untried, untested and unlikely to scale up.

Carbon Capture and Storage is unlikely to deliver anything like the benefits that are being advertised. It may even be a clever way to falsify our national Carbon accounting.

We are genuinely wasting our time with Carbon Capture and Storage - yet the UK Government is committed to spending precious public funds in pursuing it.

Two simple thought experiments explain why it is a non-starter for the prize for big hitters.

Pipeline Litter

The infrastructure argument : it is likely that most of the geological locations suitable for Carbon Dioxide underground storage will be those where Fossil Fuels have been extracted.

So literally, here is what would happen : gas and oil (and coal) are removed from the ground in Location A. They are then transported to Location B to be burned for electrical generation. Then the Carbon Dioxide from Location B is taken back to Location A to be sequestered underground by pumping and capping off (sealing it underground).

Now, this requires considerable built infrastructure to achieve : pipelines, roads, containers, pumping equipment, you name it. And infrastructure requires energy to build it. So Carbon is spent in order to save Carbon.

If Location A and Location B are proximate, things are still not good. If Location B is far from where the electricity is to be used then there will be not only be high inefficiencies in energy distribution, there will also be new infrastructure necessary to deliver that energy : new pylons, transformers, sub-stations and so on.

And besides the infrastructure needed to deliver Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there is a further demand. When CCS wells are full, the the CCS plants needs to be re-located.

So a power plant over a Carbon Well would need to be dismantled and re-positioned - all of which requires financial investment, energy investment, labour investment, resource investment and the resulting Carbon Dioxide emissions.

Back of the envelope calculations show that the kind of infrastructure required by CCS would be like that for the oil refinery industry.

It is highly likely that the amount of energy used to sequester Carbon will match the amount of energy delivered by mining and burning the Carbon fuels in the first place.

It will be a no-win situation as the emissions used to sequester will match the emissions sequestered.

Chemical Bounds : It Just Won't Fit Back In The Hole

The second thought experiment requires a basic understanding of chemistry. It doesn't need to be accurate to be valid, so here goes.

Coal is composed mostly of Carbon. When it is burned, it is oxidised, that is, Oxygen from the air is chemically attached to the individual Carbon atoms. Now the size of the resulting gas molecules of Carbon Dioxide is roughly three times larger than the original Carbon.

If the most suitable locations for sequestering Carbon Dioxide are the wells and mines from which the original Carbon was extracted, then after around a third of it has been pumped back down, the well will be full.

Mixed Approach, Good : Skewed Spending, Bad

The Government Departments that handle the management of technologies rightly call for a mixed approach to both energy supply and Carbon Dioxide, but by putting a large number of the available eggs in the CCS basket, they are risking national emissions targets.

Given the pragmatic problems associated with the scaling up and delivery of CCS, it is unlikely that it can reduce overall emissions in a meaningfully significant way.

False Accounting ?

However, it could be that CCS will be used as a Carbon Accounting smokescreen : if we continue to burn barnloads of coal for electricity generation, roughly 50% of the total power supplied, then CCS could be used as a means to cover up the amount of the emissions.

It could be said that the total emissions to air have been reduced because CCS has put the Carbon Dioxide back in the ground.

But this would just cover up the naked and horrible truth that we have been unable to contain and cap our Carbon Dioxide emissions, that we have been unable to progress from the Carbon Economy to the Green Economy.

Protection of Wasteful Practices

CCS is a kind of sticking plaster over a large gaping wound : the Government still expects the United Kingdom to have remote coal-fired power stations, where two thirds of the energy is wasted cooling off the plant, and a further tenth is lost in transmission along the wires.

The thing is : it won't help heal. It's just too small.

Not Listening to Sense

One of the problems that the UK Government continues to have is that it isn't listening to sense : it's easy to dismiss people with a wave of a hand and accuse them of being "environmentalists", that is, "ideologically challenged", when they point out the illogical use of public funds.

Shouldn't we be aiming for actual implementation of new sustainable energy infrastructure (with short lead times to production) rather than running "demonstration" projects for Carbon Capture and Storage, which can't possibly scale up to the size we need and will deliver far too little in terms of emissions reductions ?

Further Reading

Vaclav Smil on Volumes to Sequester :-

The OECD on Vaclav Smil :-
"Canadian energy researcher Vaclav Smil calculates that if just 10% of global CO2 emissions were to be sequestered, this would mean burying annually about 6,000 million cubic metres of compressed CO2 gas. This is larger than the annual volume of oil extracted globally a bit less than 5,000 million cubic metres in 2005. This means creating an industry that would, every year, force underground a volume of compressed gas larger than the volume of crude oil extracted globally by the petroleum industry. Noting that the oil industry's infrastructure and capacity has been put in place over a century, Smil concludes that 'such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.'" Reference : SMIL, V. (2006) Energy at the Crossroads: Background notes for a presentation at the Global Science Forum Conference on Scientific Challenges for Energy Research, OECD Conference on Scientific Challenges for Energy Research, Paris, 2006, [Online], Available: [11 December 2006]

FutureGen and other Follies :-

"There are plenty of experts who still doubt that capturing carbon dioxide and putting it in cold storage will ever work at a meaningful scale. Vaclav Smil at the University of Manitoba has calculated that capturing, compressing and storing just 10 percent of current CO2 emissions here and now would require as much pipeline and plant infrastructure as are now used worldwide to extract oil from the ground. And oil is a pricey commodity while carbon dioxide is a waste gas."

The College of Global Change was formed to provide a platform for thinkers and writers on Energy, Environmental and Economic Change. The Change College aims to encourage information and opinion exchange in the science, policy and education communities, and to offer commentary to the media about Global Change news. The College hopes to promote sound systems thinking for policymakers at all levels of government, and practical action for social structures and corporate organisations. The Change College is a private, non-partisan, non-profit network and is free to join. The online resources are offered at no charge to readers, and contributors are not paid. Contact us by e-mail at change dot college at google mail dot com.