COP23 BECCS, FECCS and the future of fossil fuel

COP 21’s best shot was BECCS, biomass energy carbon capture and storage. What might save the fossil fuel industry, or at least, prolong its life is FECCS, fossil energy CCS. A new report from the Global CCS Institute reports on the state-of-the art. Neil McNaughton reads between the lines.

After COP21* a couple of years back, it’s surprising that not so much is heard from the current COP 23. Beyond the fanfare of the 2015 edition, what actually is the game plan for the world, assuming that the consensus of the scientific community is right and that president Trump is wrong?

COP21 produced an impressive statement of intent regarding the need to keep temperatures below 2°C above the pre-industrial baseline but how this was to be achieved was somewhat obscure. As we reported, the preferred route to saving the world is ‘Beccs,’ biomass energy carbon capture and storage. Beccs is politically correct because it does not involve fossil fuels and biomass is ‘green’ isn’t it?

Disposing of CO2 from biomass is a dual use technology and one that, notionally, could, if not save fossil fuels, at least extend their life span. Enter Feccs, a.k.a. fossil energy CCS.

We have reported from various CCS-oriented gatherings in the past and I have been rather dismissive of the technology’s chance of ever seeing widespread take-up. The recent publication of a report by the Global CCS Institute (GCI) titled ‘The role of CCS in meeting climate policy targets’ provides a comprehensive summary of current efforts to capture and store CO2 from electricity generation and other industrial sources.

Fossil fuels currently meet more than 80% of global primary energy demand, and CO2 from fossil fuel combustion accounts for over 90% of energy-related emissions. So there is a good case to be made for CCS if their use is to continue. But how good a case is not clear, either from the executive summary nor from the conclusions of the report. There is too much politics involved to make a straightforward case for investment in CCS.

In Europe, CCS is perceived by the greens as a get-out clause for the fossil fuel industry and is to be resisted. In the USA, CCS trials are acceptable especially when piggy-backed onto enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects.

The political brakes in Europe and the commercial accelerators in the US have led to the interesting situation where the denialist US is sequestering far more CO2 than the handwringing nations of the EU. In Germany, which pulled back from Nuclear following Fukushima, the return of lignite mining opened a great opportunity for CCS. But the fact that lignite mines are located in different localities than potential sequestration sites has led to large-scale nimbyism stemming from a ‘Länder clause’ in the German CCS bill that gives regional government the ability to authorize or prohibit CO2 storage on their territory. Worse, CCS and nuclear now seem to be equivalent in the public eye and are likely vote losers.

The Netherlands CCS flagship, the Rotterdam Opslag en Afvang Demonstratie (Road) project has stalled because of a funding shortfall, even though it includes a potentially commercial component (the CO2 is to be sold to greenhouses).

Meanwhile, the UK has fallen from its early poster child status when it was providing ‘the strongest policy leadership in encouraging CCS’ and when its CCS policy framework was considered a ‘good practice example.’ In 2015 the UK unexpectedly withdrew its financial support for CCS. Norway is doing better and is planning a ‘full scale industrial’ CCS project for 2022.

The US government has supported CCS since 1997 with the aim of ‘safeguarding fossil fuel use, developing global technology leadership and mitigating climate change.’ Between 2008 and 2014, Congress appropriated $6.4 billion for CCS projects. The Kemper County energy facility in Mississippi will be the largest CCS power project in the world, capturing 3 Mtpa. Here CO2 is used for EOR and represents 65% of the 582 MW electricity generation plant’s capacity although the project has seen delays and rising costs.

Contrary to what one might imagine, in the US, excess CO2 is defined as a substance that damages its citizens’ health and can be regulated by the EPA, whereas Europe ‘scrupulously avoids’ defining CO2 as a pollutant to avoid it being subject to EU directives on waste disposal!

The GCI report puts the overall cost hike for electricity with CCS at ‘between 26% and 114%’ over plants without such technology. On the other hand, ‘the non-availability of CCS appears to make climate mitigation scenarios at best much higher cost, and at worst infeasible.’ A bit of sophistry that I take as meaning that alternative green energies will not scale enough to mitigate fossil fuel use.

So where are we today with CCS? It’s hard to tell from the study just how much CO2 is being sequestered, but totting up the notional values of the demonstrators around the world I estimate that, to an order of magnitude, the world could be sequestering around 10 Mtpa if they were all up and running.

How much is that compared with worldwide CO2 emissions? The website gives a spuriously accurate 35.9 Gtpa of CO2 from fossil fuels. Given that one third of emissions come from transportation and cannot be considered ‘sequestrable’ (despite my editorial), this leaves a potential target of say 20 Gtpa, 20,000 times all current capacity.

How much would that cost? Say current capacity has cost $10 billion, this comes to around $200 trillion, three times world GDP. And this for the pleasure of paying at least 25% more for your electricity. How much would that add to the bill? Fossil electricity consumption is 15 TWh/year at roughly $100/MWh. 25% of this would be another $0.4 trillion. The CCS showstopper is infrastructure cost. The extra cost of electricity is just the coup de grace!


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