Carbon capture update IEA’s latest report on carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is timely for Australia with the technology being announced last week as one of the five priorities under the Morrison government’s Technology Roadmap. The report shows that CCUS is glass-half-empty or glass-half-full depending on your perspective.

On the positive side, new projects are being added to the overall pipeline. The introduction of a tax credit for CCUS facilities in the US, worth up to US$50/tCO2 for storage or US$35/tCO2 for utilisation in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) or other uses has stimulated several new developments there. Of the ten new projects added to the Global CCS institute database this year, nine are in the US (the other is the UK’s Drax project, see below for further details). Given that not all projects come to fruition, it may be more pertinent that the last twelve months has seen three new projects commence operations: the CCS component of Western Australia’s Gorgon gas production facility – the world’s largest to date and two projects in Canada. These use the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, designed to link multiple industrial emitters (a refinery and a fertiliser plant in the first instance) with multiple EOR and storage locations. Even with these new additions, the total number of actual and potential facilities is lower than a decade ago as figure 1 shows:

Figure 1: Global potential and operational CCUS facilities

The glass half empty perspective would note that in most, if not all situations, projects are still dependent on government funding – both grants and tax incentives. In Europe, there is a carbon price to help make projects commercially viable and regulatory requirements also play a role in several locations.

It would also highlight the chequered history of the Petra Nova plant in Texas. This carbon capture unit attached to the WA Parish coal-fired power plant aimed to capture 90 per cent of CO2 emissions and sell them to a nearby oil field for EOR. But – unsurprisingly for a technology still in the pre-deployment phase, there have been numerous outages and recently the oil field customer stopped producing due to the slump in oil prices. With nowhere to send the CO2, the power plant owner NRG simply switched off the carbon capture plant, given that it faces no costs from the increased emissions. This is the challenge with CCUS. If there is a use case, whether for EOR or as a feedstock in a chemical process, then the stream of CO2 may have value, but only has a home as long as there is demand for it from the use case. What happens when that use case ceases to be economically viable? Conversely, if the end point is simply storage, then there is no demand issue but also no value, expect to the extent that it avoids paying a carbon price.

The solution to avoiding these kinds of issues are CCUS hubs that link multiple emitters with multiple storage sites. The ACTL is an obvious example. Norway, which has invested more in CCUS than any other country – proportionately to its size – is developing  a major storage hub, Northern Lights with both a waste-to-energy and a cement project to feed in to it. Thanks to the development of the London protocol, this may be the first

The IEA remains of the view that CCUS, especially for otherwise hard-to-abate industrial emissions such as those arising from cement manufacture is a critical component of achieving net zero emissions. It sees a role for CCUS in contributing negative emissions that industries struggling to find cost-effective CO2 abatement can use as offsets, such as bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) and direct air capture with carbon sequestration (DACCS). While direct capture is a ways off being commercially viable, BECCS is being trialled at the UK’s giant Drax biofueled steam turbine plant. Drax has a goal of having all four turbines fitted with CCS by 2035, making it carbon negative. This would be quite a turnaround for what was western Europe’s largest coal plant back in the 1980s. Is Drax a symbol of what CCS can achieve or a technological cul-de-sac of dubious environmental virtue? Only time will tell.