According to the Carbon Monitor the COVID-19 pandemic halted the CO2 emissions in 2020 with a 4% fall Y-o-Y. The major drop in percentage was registered in the transport sector due to the lockdowns and consequently flight restrictions while the greatest absolute reduction was witnessed in the power sector, mainly due to less demand and significant reduction of coal consumption in the energy mix.

Despite this optimistic news, efforts continue to be necessary to reach COP21 target of limiting global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius which lead us the main topic of this article: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

All the scenarios developed by the recognized entities, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), confirm that CCS facilities are crucial to achieve the decarbonization of our society and fight climate change. The ability to avoid further emissions from current processes and to eliminate CO2 directly from the atmosphere will have to be a reality, even though the investment and development in these solutions have been rare in the past years.

According to the IEA, only 4 new facilities were operating since our last article published in 2018, accounting for a total of 21 Carbon Capture and Storage Facilities, currently responsible for capturing less than 40 Million tons of CO2 per year (Mtpa) around the world.

The slow evolution of this type of technology can be explained by some factors being the high cost the most frequently used, especially compared to solutions such as wind and solar that makes more attractive to invest on. Other important constraint is related to a less strict climate policies especially the carbon pricing that is crucial to discourage the current emission levels and to make the CCS economically attractive.

Figure 1 – IEA, World large-scale CCS facilities operating and in development, 2010-2020, IEA, Paris

Nevertheless, the interest is growing and that is clear with the 30 projects under development that, aligned with current operating facilities, will account for the capture of 130 Mtpa.

The IEA’s Sustainable development Scenario projects that CCS technologies will be responsible to capture CO2 emissions from the current level of 40 Mtpa to 5 635 Mtpa by 2050, with most of the emissions captured coming from coal and natural gas.

Spread of Carbon Capture and Storage

From the current 21 operating facilities across de Globe, 14 are used to optimize the oil extraction process and extract natural gas as a byproduct named as EOR.

To achieve net-zero emissions CCS is expected to be applied in the following main areas:

  • CCS as part of the solution for the energy generation

As we know electricity demand is expected to increase in the coming years and is also known that currently energy generation accounts already for near one third of global CO2 emissions which makes a crucial area to address.

With most of the European countries with deadlines for the coal phase-out, main concern goes to China and other emerging Asian economies.

By integrating CCS facilities, current coal plants can still operate and avoid early retirement and all the economic and social burden that such decision implicate.

Also, the increase of renewable generation, especially wind and solar technologies will increase the need of back-up capacity generation that will have to be “controlled on-demand” in order to maintain a stable operation of the power systems and this means using gas or coal plants. CCS should be considered as a solution to limit the CO2 emissions of such technologies.

Figure 2 – IEA, World energy sector CO2 emissions from existing power and industrial facilities, 2019-2050, IEA, Paris

  • A solution for the industrial sector and transport

Heavy industry accounts for 20% of the global CO2 emissions and current technologies make it impossible to think about on alternatives to fossil fuels to conduct their normal activities.

The same happens in the transport sector, including road freight, aviation and maritime shipping.

According to the IEA, the CO2 emissions directly from industry are expected to rise from 8 to 10 billion tonnes per year until 2060. However, to achieve the Paris Agreement goal, these emissions must be reduced to 4.7 billion tonnes for the same period and according to the same source, this can only be achieved by investing massively in CCS technologies to remove CO2 at the end of the production cycles. Between 2017 and 2060, carbon capture facilities must be responsible to halt 29 billion tonnes from the sectors such as iron and steel, chemical and cement in order to reach climate targets.

  • Natural gas, a must have

Despite the 4% fall of natural gas demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for this commodity is expected to rise by 14% until 2025 compared to 2020 and even more beyond as the necessity to substitute coal in Asia, North America and in Europe. The switch between technologies is expected to cut by half the emission levels, but it will still account for a significant level of emissions.

  • Make Hydrogen viable

One of the hottest topics for energy transition is Hydrogen and is expected to play a critical role in replacing hydrocarbon-based fuels in transports, replacing fossil fuels at the industrial sector and being used as energy storage for power generation and even to be injected along with natural gas supplies.

According to the latest report from IPCC, 98% of current hydrogen is produced from the gasification of coal and from steam methane reforming (SMR) from natural gas with both methods producing CO2 emissions. The cleanest way to produce Hydrogen is through the electrolysis of water, powered by renewables but it only account currently for 0.3% of total Hydrogen produced.

Carbon Capture technologies are cost-effective way to contribute for the energy transition by implementing such technologies in coal gasification and SMR pathways in the short and medium term since, according to IRENA estimations, renewables-based hydrogen I expected to be competitive only by 2050.

Currently there are four industrial-scale SMR hydrogen facilities with CCS producing close to 800 thousand tonnes of low-carbon hydrogen yearly.

  • Going Further, Negative Emissions

The path to a Net-Zero emissions society is more complex than it seems and needs more than just reduce emissions to reach this goal, it is necessary to enter in the path of negative emissions meaning to actively remove CO2 from the atmospheric air.

The importance of CCS as never be more crucial and currently there are technologies that will be a game changer: the BECCS and the DACCS.

BECCS stands for Bioenergy with CCS and the principle of this technology is to captures and storage the CO2 emissions from the biomass use, called biogenic CO2. Since most of the GHG accounting schemes consider the CO2 from the biomass combustion process is considered as net-zero, by capturing and storing it will account as a negative impact in the CO2 levels.

An area where significant interest around the BECCS’ potential is in Waste-to-energy (WtE) plants since part of the waste-based fuel will be from biogenic origin (like wood, carboard, food, etc) and by capturing the CO2 from the combustion process, the plants overall emissions will become negative.

Figure 3 – BECCS Technology. Source: Global Status of CCS 2020 by Global CCS Institute

The technology DACCS is the acronym for Direct Air Capture with Carbon Storage and this, as the name indicates, extracts CO2 directly from the atmospheric air.

In the previous article we wrote about Climeworks, a company from Switzerland that was already pioneering in this kind of technology. This technology has more difficulties that the others because is more difficult to capture CO2 from the atmosphere since is 99% less concentrated than a flue gas from a gas-fired power plant. Nevertheless, the DACCS has some key advantages:

  • Capture facilities can be co-located with storage locations which helps to reduce the transport costs;
  • Plants can be implemented near to renewable energy assets;
  • By installing the DACCS plants in windy locations, less costs will be required for the fans.

Figure 4 – DACCS Technology. Source: Global Status of CCS 2020 by Global CCS Institute

Close look in Europe

Only 2 out the 21 operating projects around the globe are in Europe and both are in Norway, but interest in CCS has been growing with 11 projects already under development and other 11 to be expected before 2030.

The boost made by the European Green Deal and Climate law has led to the development of additional EU policy more focused and supportive of Carbon Capture technologies and it could be opening the way for the dissemination of CCS technologies in Europe.

Other important milestone was the EU’s 10 billion Euros Innovation fund launched in July of 2020 aimed to scaling up low-carbon technologies and that is expected to be used to boost several CCS projects.

The revision of EU’s 2030 Climate Target Plan should benefit the CCS projects by revising the EU Emissions Trading System and the more ambitious the targets get, the more fundamental is to reduce the levels of CO2 emissions.

By 2023 is expected to be released an EU framework for certification for carbon removal which certainly will encourage the investment in negative emission technologies such as the BECCS and the DACCS.

In October 2019, a proposed resolution jointly submitted by the governments of the Netherlands and Norway was approved allowing a ‘provisional application’ of the 2009 amendment, giving “consent to cross-border transport of carbon dioxide for the purpose of geological storage without entering into non-compliance with international commitments”. This new amendment was crucial for Europe and the development of more CCS projects.

At national level, the most active countries leading in terms of policy developments to encourage CCS facilities are Norway, the Netherlands and UK. In the United Kingdom, at least 800 million pounds will be used to create CCS clusters on at least two UK sites in the next 10 years while the Netherlands will make 5 billion Euros available for a variety of technologies that help to avoid CO2 emissions. Norway had a different approach by targeting specific projects such as backing the acceleration of the project Longship and supporting the assessment on carbon capture on incinerations plants in three Norwegian cities.

The remain countries seem to be closely monitoring the different approaches of the leading countries without specifying any concrete action towards CCS technologies. The only surprise was the acknowledgment made by the German Chancellor that Carbon Capture and Storage is crucial to climate neutrality.

The most famous initiative is the Northern Lights in Norway which is developing an open and flexible infrastructure to transport CO2 from capture sites by ship to a terminal for intermediate storage and therefore being transported by pipeline to a permanent storage. The first project will be the Longship and the phase 1 is expected to be finalised by 2024.

Figure 5 – Northern Lights Project. source: Global Status of CCS 2020

Other important projects led by the UK and the Netherlands aim to storage CO2 in the North Sea but surprisingly Italy announced last year that there are plans to build one of the largest CO2 capture and storage centre in the world at ENI’s facilities in the Port of Ravenna, by using the depleted offshore gas reservoirs to trap CO2 emissions from operational power and industrial plants. If confirmed this would be the first project outside the North Sea.

Is it now?

The mindset seems to have changed and governments finally understand there won’t be a Net-Zero future without effective deployment and use of Carbon Capture and Storage Technologies in Europe and across the Globe. The projects pipeline is bigger than ever and the support from central entities and even key-companies seem to be aligned in the right direction.

In Europe, important steps were made last year in such a difficult year which could be a sign of how serious the EU is about climate change and Energy transition towards a low carbon economy. But there still other important milestones to reach this year and in the coming ones to help the CCS technologies to achieve de maturity level desired.

Jorge Seabra | Energy Consultant

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