Carbon capture and storage: are we there yet?

Greenhouse emissions are a stock, not a flow. Which means every tonne of carbon dioxide not emitted into the atmosphere, regardless of how this is achieved, delivers against the objective of abating emissions.

The popular debate around climate has been reduced to an overly simplistic narrative around good versus evil. Renewables are good, coal is evil. This is a bit of a problem when around 65 per cent is evil but keeping the lights on and the economy running. It’s a lot of evil to phase out.

Federal Climate and Energy Minister Angus Taylor thinks so too. Having already taken control of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s board, he’s now expanded its investment plan to broaden the scope of ARENA’s activities beyond developing renewables.

One of these expansion packs is research into carbon capture and storage (CCS), the somewhat mature technology of harvesting and storing greenhouse emissions before, during or after combustion of fossil fuels or industrial processes. The technology’s  ability to reduce emissions is as valid as anyone else’s, at least in theory.

ARENA’s scope was due for an upgrade. ARENA was created in 2012 by the Gillard Government, the rationalisation of an amalgam of a host of different funds and schemes designed to develop and promote renewables technologies. This was back in the day when it was assumed a rainbow alliance of different renewable technologies would be needed.

The dream was we would use wind and solar PV, but we would also use wave energy, geothermal, solar thermal and even solar paints. To achieve this we needed an early development renewables R&D funding agency. This would act like an angel fund investor, a high school talent scout, to get all these undiscovered technologies out of sheds and workshops and heading towards commercialisation.

ARENA soon discovered there was no great hidden store of renewables ideas. In its battle to survive the politically lean years of the Abbott Government, it intelligently made itself politically useful by supporting more practical projects. This included integration and deployment of proven renewables technologies like wind and solar in new locations, like off-grid mining locations.

In recent years ARENA has become more Federal Government toy, less independent agency. If you get the politics right, the money seems to follow. ARENA is still important and has important wins as it has broadened its scope to include storage, electric vehicles and hydrogen.

The new expansion of ARENA’s scope has five elements: optimise electricity decarbonisation including low cost solar and storage technologies, hydrogen (although it was already doing it), low emissions metals, soil sequestration and CCS.

For the most part this validates approaches ARENA was already taking and reinforces the broader economy-wide abatement need to make deep emissions reductions. The political pot sticker is CCS. Labor and the Greens opposed the inclusion but failed to block it in the Senate.

The deeper issue is how long governments keep throwing money at an expensive and relatively mature technology that for a decade has failed to get past the pilot project stage.

CCS is mature: it was adapted from the practice of injecting carbon dioxide into underground gas fields to push the gas out. Capturing at least some carbon dioxide from various stages of gas production, power station combustion of coal and gas or industrial processes is possible and proven. But it consumes so much energy to capture, compress and pump carbon dioxide underground. Facilities need to be adjacent to suitable storage.

Even in lower cost, adjacent commercial applications like Gorgon sequestering fugitive carbon dioxide from gas produced in the north-west shelf, it is struggling to deliver. Santos is about to replicate Gorgon’s efforts in the Cooper Basin, hoping for better results.

The trouble with CCS is everyone builds a pilot to demonstrate the possibility of the technology. But almost no one goes on to scale it up. Since 2006 more than 70 pilot CCS facilities have been built around the world to test its suitability for coal fired power stations, gas generators, chemical facilities, cement production and waste to energy.

The small handful of commercial CCS facilities exist in very specific technical and geographic conditions. Promises made to scale up tend to tail off as commercial close approaches. The US Government pulled out of its FutureGen CCS project twice, in 2008 and 2015. It simply couldn’t land a credible commercial scale CCS power station.

The tricky question governments continue to put off is not whether we try to make CCS work. We should. But what will it take to accept that maybe CCS isn’t getting there? As desirable as cost-effective capture and storage of emissions might be, there must be a point where further investment in a technology is like putting another coat of paint on a wall. It doesn’t make it any whiter.