Greenpeace International recently released the results of its study on the proposed practice of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at the world’s coal-fired power plants. CCS is an integrated process made up of three parts: carbon capture, transport, and storage, including measurement, monitoring, and verification. CCS technology must have a concentrated stream of CO2 in order to compress, transport and store the greenhouse gas. Transport of compressed CO2 will most likely be along pipelines, and the storage of CO2 will be conducted in geological formations either on land or under the sea. CCS has been touted by members of the coal and utilities industries as their answer to the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels for energy. However, Greenpeace’s new study, “False Hope: Why Carbon Capture and Storage Won’t Save the Climate,” discounts industry claims that CCS technology could save the Earth from the effects of climate change.
First on the list of shortcomings is perhaps the most important flaw with CCS technology. Analysts from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) say “CCS will arrive on the battlefield far too late to help the world avoid dangerous climate change.” As it stands today, the earliest CCS technology would be available for use on the utility scale in 2030, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not expect CCS technology to be feasible on a commercial scale until the middle of the century. Even then, coal-fired plants responsible for between 40 and 70 percent of the electricity sector’s CO2 emissions would not be viable for use of CCS technology. But even where CCS would be a possibility, the technology would not formally arrive on the scene by the 2015 deadline set by many scientists for maximizing CO2 emissions. As the Greenpeace report puts it, “If CCS is ever able to deliver at all, it will be too little too late.”
Another problem with CCS cited by the study is that CCS technology wastes energy. Estimates show that CCS technology will use between 10-40% of a power plant’s output. This reduction in efficiency will mean that we must mine, transport, and burn more coal for a plant to produce the same amount of energy as it did before using CCS. Power stations would also require up to 90% more water to run by implementing CCS. Wide-scale adoptions of CCS could negate the efficiency gains of the last half a century.
Greenpeace also notes that storage of CO2 underground is likely to be risky. For starters, the IEA estimates that for CCS to have a meaningful impact on climate change, there must be 6,000 separate projects by 2050 which store one million tons of carbon dioxide per year each. As of now, there is no evidence that the technology will be able to handle this much CO2, especially when we consider that there may not be enough storage sites and that available sites may not be within close enough proximity of power stations. Estimates show that transport of carbon dioxide over 100 km will make CCS economically unviable. Moreover, experts are unsure whether or not it will be possible to manage burial sites for the timetables necessary, and geological formations have the possibility of leakage. Some believe a leakage rate as low as 1% could negate efforts to reduce climate change.
Furthermore, development of CCS technology and implementation on the scale required is extremely expensive. Spending so much money on new technology for coal-fired power plants will keep necessary funding away from developing renewable sources of energy. Analysts estimate that the price of carbon emissions will have to increase by a factor of five in order to pay for the building of coal-fired power stations compatible with CCS technology and the infrastructure necessary for transportation and sequestration of captured CO2. Research also shows that electricity generated from coal-fired plants with CCS technology will be more expensive to consumers than electricity generated from wind or many types of sustainable biomass. Greenpeace’s Future Investment report shows that investing in renewable sources of energy would save $180 billion annually and cut carbon emissions in half by 2050.
Within the industry itself, Greenpeace notes, there is unwillingness to develop and implement CCS technology because of the liabilities associated with it. Large scale liability risks for CCS include negative health effects, damage to ecosystems, pollution of groundwater including drinking water, and increased greenhouse gas emissions from storage leakage. Because there is no system in place to determine liability for these problems, the industry is unwilling to implement CCS until there is a framework in place to protect it from long-term liability. In fact, they are opposed to CCS unless they are relieved of ownership of the CO2 once it is transported off the power station, and potential operators will not agree to store the CO2 unless they are relieved of ownership of the CO2 after ten years. In all cases, the industry is asking their governments to take ownership of the carbon dioxide, which means that the public will assume the risk and pay for any damages resulting from CCS technology.
Finally, Greenpeace notes that CCS is just a distraction from the solutions the world already has to climate change. Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution blueprint shows that renewables, combined with an increase in energy efficiency, can cut global CO2 emissions by 50% and deliver half the world’s energy needs by 2050. Greenpeace says, “The same climate decision-makers who were skeptical about CCS believed far more in the ability of renewable technologies to deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” Decades of technological advancement have delivered renewable technologies such as wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, biomass power plants, and solar thermal collectors into the mainstream, while the collapse of FutureGen, the Bush administration’s flagship CCS project failed.
All in all, the Greenpeace study shows that CCS technology is just a smokescreen that hides the real solutions to climate change: use of renewable energy sources and greater energy efficiency. These two options are available to us today and carry none of the risks of CCS technology. To read more about “False Hope: Why Carbon Capture and Storage Won’t Save the Climate” and download it and its Executive Summary visit Greenpeace’s website.