Fighting against Windmills – Is carbon storage an appropriate option to mitigate climate change?


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Venice: 17 EUSJA Journalists attended the CO2GeoNet Open Forum 2013 to get answers about carbon capturing and storage (CCS).

Undoubtedly the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is increasing. The gas acts like a greenhouse to earth: it keeps the heat coming from the sun. Therefore our planet is getting hotter and hotter. This will harm life badly. Scientists believe that CO2 pollution is largely coming from burning fossil fuels. And action has to be taken urgently. One option is to extract the gas out of the atmosphere and to put it somewhere safely. This technic is called carbon capturing and storage (CCS).

Now from 9th to 10th April 2013 there had been the annual Open Forum of the CO2GeoNet, the European network of excellence on the geological storage of CO2 in Venice. About 140 scientists discussed the issue of storing CO2 geologically – that mean deep underground. They kindly invited journalists from EUSJA to join the meeting. 17 colleagues followed the call.

For me it was a unique opportunity to reflect my prejudice attitude to this technic with the views of experts. Because what I read about CCS and because of some experiences on the communication strategy I experienced e.g. on a workshop on the same subject in Dublin during the ESOF 2012, which was misleadingly called: “What is the impact of sustainable energy technologies?” I had fairly negative feelings about CCS. I had the impression, that strong industrial forces are pushing this technology to keep oil and coal companies in business. Furthermore I feared that these forces are also dominating the EU legislation, which was forcing the member states to make this very controversially discussed technology feasible and so sticking to an energy system which is pointing backwards instead into future. Since the habit of first polluting the environment and then trying to invent a solution to get rid of the rubbish produced had been the strategy of industry for a long time. Modern and more environmental friendly industries nowadays try to avoid trash or try to give their waste to other companies that could use that material as feedstock.

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Sergio Persoglia, director International Collaborations of the Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale OGS opened the meeting.

The meeting in Venice started as expected: Instead of a press conference as announced in the invitation, there had been lessons on CO2 storage. Like in Dublin they were called a workshop, which lasted several hours – I feared something like a brainwashing. But the most important thing I learned there was the fact that a lot of storage projects across Europe are struggling or even were cancelled. From about 70 large scale injection projects worldwide less than ten are in operation – non in the EU, two in Norway.

So my impression, that industry and EU are supporting these projects strongly had turned out to be wrong. Actually no project for CCS was confirmed for the first call of the so-called NER300 Programme said Alexandr Jevsejenko from the Directory General Climate Action of the European Commission at the conference. NER300 is a financing instrument managed jointly by the European Commission, European Investment Bank and Member States for subsidising installations of innovative renewable(!) energy technology and carbon capture and storage(!) worth 300 million rights to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide of the New Entrants’ Reserve of the European Emissions Trading Scheme. That is worth more than a billion Euros. (the tight combination of renewables and CCS I would call “remarkable”…)

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Strange: The press conference turned out to be a workshop.

Actually by now just a few pilots or demos are running. Not a significant amount of CO2 is stored. So I had to scratch my feeling that “strong forces” are behind that technic.

There is another point I had to correct myself: The talks sounded convincing that storing CO2 not a big technical problem and that it could be done without excessive risks for the environment. The scientists have long-time experiences coming e.g. from buffering gas underground or from drilling for it – as well as for oil. Nevertheless they admit that there is a lot of research to be done to analyse a geological site, if there is explicitly a decision for one. Even if they tap deep saline aquifers there will be no undetected leakages or decontaminations of groundwater assured the scientists. Even better: Because of chemical reactions with the rocks down in the underground some of the CO2 is transformed into solid carbonates, which stabilize the storage site. “The risky time is during injection”, concedes Nick Riley from the British Geological Survey. Although CO2 mixed in water is forming a weak acid “I have never seen any risk because of acidification”, adds Rob Arts from TU Delft and TNO, Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.

All this sounded convincing. You have got the feeling, that if you provide the scientists an amount of CO2, they would manage to store it savely. And it wouldn’t be too expensive. The gas even could be used for the so called Enhanced Oil (or gas) Recovery (abbreviated EOR). That is pressing it into the well to get more oil or gas out of it.

But there are some big hitches: The scientists estimate that the capacity for storing the emissions in Europe is limited. Within a few decades all possible dumps are filled. At least then new ideas are needed. Therefore the scientists consider CCS just to be a transition technology.

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Nice place, hot topic: What are the potentials of CCS?

That’s not all: CCS is a very complex process consisting not only of storing the gas. It includes capturing and transporting it before. Especially capturing CO2 is said to be very expensive. Estimates indicate that it could almost double the price of electricity coming from burning coal. This is because the process of capturing itself needs much energy, in other words: much more coal to burn. Nick Riley sees this like a sportsman: “This could also be a chance for renewables”, he says, because power from coal plants would then for sure be more expensive than power coming from windmills – at least on land.

Furthermore some capturing technics produce more of other kinds of greenhouse gases like nitrogen oxides or sulfur oxides which are even more dangerous for the atmosphere than CO2. And last but not least CCS is just one option to get rid of CO2. The most favourable option is to avoid the production of CO2 e.g. by using more renewables instead of burning fossil fuels. Other possibilities are using CO2 as a feedstock for chemicals, feeding algae or plants with the gas to make bio-fuel out of it or even food and last but not least to foster reforestation or to stop cutting trees so extensively as today. So society has to decide, how their limited Euros are spend best. In my opinion CCS could just be one option – and even after listening to the talks on the forum in Venice probably not the best one.

By Gerhard Samulat

About Gerhard Samulat

Freelance Journalist for Science and Technology and Physicist / Member of the German Journalist Association DJV the German Science Writer Organisation wpk / www.gerhardsamulat.de