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New Projects Show Carbon Capture Is Not Dead

Petra Nova, the world's biggest CCS project, started up last week, and other sites show that it's not just for coal anymore

3 min read

Huge grey pipe on supports winds its way between two parts of the Petra Nova carbon capture facility in Houston
Photo: NRG Energy

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has had a hard time finding love. The technology is easy to dismiss because of its expense. It’s too green for those on one extreme, too tied to fossil fuels for others, and largely misunderstood by those in the middle.

The demise of the U.S. project FutureGen and then German energy producer Vattenfall’s decision to shut down its CCS operations in 2014 was a low point for CCS. But a rash of new projects are proving the technology is surviving and—depending on the policies of the incoming Trump administration—it may even be headed for a turning point.

Proponents of the technology got some exciting news last week with the world’s largest carbon capture system, the US $1 billion Petra Nova facility outside Houston, began operations. At full swing, Petra Nova will pump 1.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from a coal power plant to a nearby oil field to force oil out of the ground.

Although many tie CCS to coal, it could actually be the growing natural-gas industry that propels carbon capture

Using carbon dioxide to recover oil is not ideal for combating climate change. But Petra Nova is a shining star because it came in on budget and on time, something unheard of for CCS.

Two other large U.S. CCS projects are slated to go online in the next few weeks. The Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi will use trapped carbon dioxide for oil recovery. Archer Daniels Midland Company’s bioethanol facility in Decatur, Ill., plans to store the captured gas in a saline aquifer deep underground; that plant is ready to go and awaiting permits expected by spring.

Meanwhile, in Canada, two high-profile CCS facilities—SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Power Station and Shell’s Quest project—have been performing as expected since they began operations in the past two years. 

It’s hard to predict what the new administration could mean for CCS, says Ron Munson of the Australia-based Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI), which promotes the technology. Carbon capture advanced significantly due to the Obama administration’s policies and focus on energy research and development. The Department of Energy’s stimulus funding played a major role in advancing all three U.S. projects coming to fruition now, Munson says. How supportive the new administration will be to such R&D is anyone’s guess.

“As we deploy more and more systems, cost is decreasing for each one. The policy side is what really needs attention”

One thing is certain: Although many tie CCS to coal, it could actually be the growing natural-gas industry that propels carbon capture. Most CCS projects that have been up and running—some, such as the Sleipner project in Norway, for decades—are at natural-gas processing facilities. A market for carbon dioxide could seal the deal. “There are still hundreds of natural-gas operations that vent their carbon dioxide,” Munson says. “Moving forward, we see real opportunities in these industrial applications.”

A change in public perception will be key for CCS’s growth. That will take a better understanding of the technology, its necessity for a low-carbon future, and its safety. The fall of Vattenfall boiled down to the German public being uncomfortable with the onshore storage of carbon dioxide, he says. 

But what would really push CCS forward are supportive policies, such as business and tax incentives, says Munson. And even if the new U.S. administration shows little support for CCS, state policies could have a big impact. States could expand their renewable energy portfolios to include carbon capture as a strategy to meet carbon emissions standards, for instance. Massachusetts has such a proposal in the works.

Nearly two dozen large-scale CCS facilities are now operating globally or under construction, according to the GCCSI. Together they will be able to capture about 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. (U.S. emissions in 2014 were 5.3 billion metric tons in 2014.)

Renewables and nuclear energy are growing thanks to decarbonization policies, which largely ignore carbon capture and storage. But the EIA predicts that fossil fuels will still be a major portion of global energy use in 2040. And many experts believe that CCS will be necessary if we are to grow global economies while stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.

“From a technical standpoint, it’s ready,” Munson says. “It works. The biggest technical issue is reducing cost, and that’s being actively pursued through global R&D. As we deploy more and more systems, cost is decreasing for each one. The policy side is what really needs attention.”

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