Catching Before Belching: the Questionable Future of Carbon Capture

Today, countless smokestacks around the world are emitting carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This is not a good news, as “cumulative emissions of hundreds or even thousands of gigatonnes of CO2 would need to be prevented during this century to stabilize the CO2 concentration at 450 to 750 ppmv (IPCC).” Because we cannot just stop using fossil fuels overnight, other ways are pursued to offset the emissions. The idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is simple; to capture the emissions from energy-using processes and dispose it. In details, CCS technology includes collecting and concentrating the CO2, transport it to a storage location, and then store it for as long as possible [1].

If properly deployed, CCS will certainly contribute to climate change mitigation. In its Third Assessment Report (TAR), the IPCC states that “the availability of CCS in the portfolio of options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions could facilitate the achievement of stabilization goals.” Even though the costs are still high, the idea of CCS is invaluable considering the leading role of coal and the communities that depend upon it. Fortunately, technology is ripe; underground sequestration has been used historically, and there are sufficient space for store the captured carbon. Once stored, there are a series of safety measures such as a cap rock or monitoring system, according to Professor Sally Benson at Stanford University.

However, CCS has yet to become popular due to its questionable commercial viability. The technology is too pricey, and it has never been tested in a larger scale. Moreover, the unit itself is too large—sometimes as big as the coal plant itself—which requires additional land, and burden, for plant operators. Most importantly, CCS can pose a threat to the environment and human health. CCS projects can be an enormous engineering project, involving too many uncertainties. No precedence explains how much CO2 can be sequestered or whether it will stay underground as intended. Unexpected events such as injection well failures or undetected faults may occur, and the consequences will be huge given the scale of the projects.

The jury is still out on CCS, with a larger-scale project launched in Canada as recently as in 2014 [2]. Ironically, even if the new project succeeds with reduced costs, it is uncertain whether CCS can actually contribute to climate change mitigation. “CO2 capture systems require significant amounts of energy for their operation. This reduces net plant efficiency [3].” In other words, power plants need to burn more coals to make up the loss. Why bother, then, venturing all the resources and efforts?

[1] Source: IPCC 2005, “Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Technical Report”

[2] Source: http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/pressreleases/2014/october/iea-hails-historic-launch-of-carbon-capture-and-storage-project.html

[3] Source: IPCC 2005, “Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Technical Report”

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