Carbon capture and storage: a promising new technology to fight climate change
Scientists are warning that in order to prevent climate change from reaching disastrous proportions later this century, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases will need to be cut by at least half of 1990 levels by 2050.
Using energy more efficiently and producing 'clean' energy from renewable sources like the sun and the wind are Europe's top policy priorities for achieving these reductions.
But fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – will almost certainly continue to play a major role in power generation for the first half of this century, both in Europe and globally, so new technologies are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these sources.
This is especially important considering that global demand for energy is expected to double by 2050. Power generation from fossil fuels is responsible for around one-third of Europe's CO2 emissions today.
Stop emissions at source
One of the promising technologies for cutting CO2 emissions from large fossil-fuel installations is carbon capture and storage (CCS).
CCS involves capturing the CO2 produced when fossil fuels are burnt, transporting it to a suitable location, then injecting it underground to prevent it from reaching the atmosphere. Suitable geological formations for this include depleted oil and gas fields, unminable coal seams and aquifers.
Underground injection of CO2 has been implemented for over a decade in various locations around the world, in particular in the oil and gas sector. In Europe, the Sleipner project, operated by Statoil in Norway, has stored about 10 million tonnes of CO2 under the North Sea since 1996. Other large-scale projects around the world include the In Salah project, run by BP and Statoil in Algeria, and the Weyburn project in Canada.
Although the individual components of the CCS chain – capture, transport and storage of CO2 – are well understood and are already operational, the challenge is to combine these elements into a fully integrated and commercially deployable technology. For this purpose, a number of CCS technologies are being developed for use in the power sector. Europe's target is to have up to 12 full-sized CCS pilot plants running by 2015 and to make the technology commercially viable by 2020.
Geological storage sites need to be managed safely to prevent the injected CO2 from escaping. This can be done by selecting the most suitable sites and putting in place stringent conditions for their operation, maintenance and monitoring. Such conditions are foreseen in a legislative proposal to encourage the safe use of CCS that was put forward by the European Commission in January 2008.
Current and future growth in worldwide energy demand – particularly from fossil fuels – means that CCS needs to play a global role. The rapid development of emerging economies such as China and India is being accompanied by strong increases in their energy demand and their CO2 emissions. According to the latest estimates, China is building an average of two large coal-fired power stations a week – each one producing CO2 emissions equivalent to 2 million cars.
CCS offers a way to tackle these emissions, which is why the EU is working with China to develop CCS and other clean technologies. Co-operation on Near Zero Emissions Coal – i.e. the research, development and deployment of clean coal and CCS technology – is a key element of the EU-China Climate Change Partnership established in 2005. The main objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of NZEC technology in China and the EU. As part of this initiative, a near-zero emissions demonstration plant will be built in China by 2020 and work is already under way on the initial phase of this project.