Local concerns about the safety of carbon sequestration are blocking European power giant Vattenfall's plan to close the loop on greenhouse gas emissions from its coal-fired carbon capture and storage (CCS) pilot plant in Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. The 'oxyfuel' plant has been burning coal in pure oxygen since starting up last fall, making its CO2 exhaust easy to capture. But burial of the CO2, set to begin this spring, is now on hold according to the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. Staffan Gortz, Vattenfall's CCS spokesperson, told the paper that, "people are very, very skeptical."
This is a point I've been stressing of late. My feature story Germany's Green Energy Gap in the July issue of Spectrum ends with the anxieties of Brunsbüttel resident Stephan Klose, who raises the specter of sequestered CO2 from coal plants escaping to the surface and causing mass asphyxiation. "If there’s a leak and you have a 1- to 2-meter-high level of CO2 , every animal, every human being within this zone will die,” says Klose.
And my Data page Where Europe Buries Carbon in this month's issue of Spectrum highlights both the extent of the European Union's carbon capture plans and the public acceptance challenge they face. "The EU must ... convince a wary public that buried CO2 will stay buried for good, protecting the densely populated communities above it," is how we put it.
But a mea culpa is in order: I underestimated the vehemency and immediacy of those concerns. The Data page shows Vattenfall's chosen sequestration site in central Germany as green or "operating". Alas even this relatively small-scale CO2 injection -- over an order of magnitude smaller than the CO2 volume that a full-scale coal power plant generates -- appears to be on hold until at least next spring.
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.