OPINION: CO2 use – or just more hot air?

Peterhead Power Station.
Peterhead Power Station.
Jeremy Cresswell
Opinion by Jeremy Cresswell

A new report has just been published by the Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) Cost Challenge Taskforce promoting the virtues of carbon, its capture and potential usage in other things.

In the preface, UK Energy Minister Claire Perry said there was international recognition that we need CCUS to meet the global climate ambitions agreed through the Paris Agreement in 2015. While there are now more than 20 CCUS projects globally, it remains a pre-commercial technology.

“This means there is a genuine opportunity for the UK to become a global technology leader for CCUS, working internationally with industry and governments to drive down the cost of deployment,” Ms Perry said.

It strikes me that we’ve been here before. I for one can look back through my archive to at least 15 years of covering the UK’s carbon ambitions and the, frankly, pathetic outcomes.

In February 2003, the UK Government published the energy white paper, ‘Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy’.

One of its cornerstones was carbon capture and storage (CCS) as opposed to CCUS, because usage was not yet in the conversation.

In a nutshell, capturing carbon and stuffing it downstairs in geology that could cope with it would be a saviour of humankind. Well, sort of.

After all: “CCS would enable the continued use of fossil fuels, thereby giving a longer timeframe to achieve a transition to a fully sustainable energy system. It would also facilitate the use of a greater diversity of energy sources, thus enhancing security of supply.”

Well, that was the great ambition.

A further energy white paper published in 2007 basically reinforced the notion that CCS had to be built into the UK’s energy future, one way or another.

It repeated the view that development and wide-scale deployment of CCS was important for UK climate change and energy security objectives, since it offered the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power stations by as much as 90%. “We therefore need to drive the development and deployment of low carbon technologies that can be applied to fossil fuel fired power generation including CCS,” it said.

In March 2007 the European Council agreed to strengthen related R&D and engineer the necessary technical, economic and regulatory framework to deploy CCS by 2020.

The council also welcomed the European Commission’s intention to establish a mechanism to stimulate the construction and operation by 2015 of up to 12 demonstration plants of CCS technologies in commercial power generation, with the ambition for all new fossil-fuel plants to be fitted with CCS by 2020, if it was technically and economically feasible to do so.

The UK Government committed in its 2007 Budget to launch a competition to support the commercial scale demonstration of CCS. When operational, it would make the UK a “world leader in this globally important technology”. There would be two pathfinder projects. It didn’t get far.

The competition was cancelled four years later on the grounds of “protecting value for money” and because it could not be funded within the £1billion budget agreed in the UK’s 2010 Spending Review. The UK National Audit Office concluded in 2011 that the competition had been a high risk and challenging undertaking launched with insufficient planning and recognition of the commercial risks.

However, it was more complicated than that. Not to mention BP and the war of words between the then-CEO John Browne and the government over support for its project, which would have involved carbon dioxide being stripped from natural gas combustion at Peterhead Power Station and pumped offshore to prolong the life of its Miller field. The aim was to recover a further prize of 50 million barrels of oil from the ageing field.

The CCS proposal for Longannet Power Station in Fife was also dropped by its proponents when funding was scrapped.

In 2013, things were once again looking up for carbon capture with £1bn again being dangled by government and ultimately covering two schemes – one at Peterhead, the other at Drax in Yorkshire.

Shell and SSE were behind the project in Peterhead, which would have delivered carbon dioxide offshore for permanent storage in the depleted Goldeneye gasfield. Drax was to be a part of a scheme called White Rose to store carbon dioxide next to its plant, which is the biggest coal-fired power station in Europe.

In 2014, then-UK Environment Secretary Ed Davey visited the Blue Toon, bragging: “It shows the UK’s leading in the low-carbon challenge to tackle climate change and get cleaner energy.”

The following year the Lib-Dem/Tory coalition scrapped the funding and both projects were kicked into the long grass as the companies involved cancelled their commitments. And so to today and the latest epistle to land in my mailbox, put together by the still new CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce, which was set up in January this year. Its remit was to assemble a strategic plan for supporting the development of CCUS to meet Westminster’s stated ambition of “having the option to deploy CCUS at scale during the 2030s, subject to costs coming down sufficiently”.

Don’t get me wrong, its aims are laudable and it is broader than anything that has gone before in the name of carbon, including covering transport emissions.

It states: “By demonstrating that CCUS can deliver decarbonisation across industry, power, and provide solutions for heat and transport, the report focuses on building a long term, commercially sustainable and cost-effective decarbonisation service industry for the UK.

“This, in turn, can bring new industrial opportunities, secure long-term jobs, deliver new economic development across our industrial heartlands and secure international competitiveness through new decarbonised products and services.

“We have identified viable business models, funding mechanisms, and an innovation pathway, as well as suggesting options to support the lowest cost delivery of a potentially transformative technology, underpinned by a series of short, medium and longer term recommendations.”

Oh, really?

In late 2009 the Finnish engineering consultancy Poyry warned that CCS may struggle to be commercially viable in the UK.

It warned of a lack of industry supply chain capacity to develop and construct CCS projects in the timescales required. CCS projects may well end up competing for resources with other UK and international projects, not only in CCS but also other power sector projects such as wind and nuclear and the oil industry.”

The UK has been here before with government twice reneging big-time.

On the other hand, maybe this is a third-time lucky situation.

Time will tell.