World's first carbon capture pilot fires up clean-coal advocates

Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) - A pilot project to demonstrate the world’s first totally integrated carbon capture and storage (CCS) system was launched last week at a coal-fired power station in Germany.

Carbon capture and storage is the key to the increased use of coal to generate electrical power around the world. What is significant about the Schwarze Pumpe project is that it is the first demonstration of a full-cycle system for the capture, transportation and storage of CO2 emissions.

The plant in Germany is a modest facility - creating only enough electricity to power 1,000 homes. But the technology being tested could have major implications in demonstrating a viable process for carbon capture and storage (CCS) needed to make "clean coal" power generation a reality.

The demonstration plant will capture up to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, compress it and bury it 3,000m below the surface of the depleted Altmark gas field, about 200km from the site.

The plant will use an oxyfuel boiler, one of three types of CCS technology. This involves burning coal in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, with a resulting waste gas of almost pure CO2. This waste gas can then be buried thereby preventing it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

Other CCS methods tend to employ technologies that remove CO2 in the pre-combustion phase by pre-treating the coal before burning, or in the post-combustion phase by scrubbing exhaust gases.

The Schwarze Pumpe pilot is just one of several projects designed to demonstrate the full chain of CCS technology. Another project of a similar size will start later this year at a power station in southern France.

In the U.K. a demonstration project will be operational by 2014 and possibly ready for commercial deployment by 2020. The EU has plans for 12 demonstration plants to be up and running by 2015.

As noted in an earlier GLOBE-Net article, conceptually there is nothing particularly new in capturing and storing carbon emissions. The technology to capture CO2 and to pump it underground is commercially available and fairly well developed. (See article: Carbon capture and storage - Reality or Illusion)

For example, CO2 is regularly injected into geological formations for such purposes as enhancing oil recovery from near depleted oil reservoirs. However no large scale power plant in the world operates with a full carbon capture and storage system.

The major impediment to implementing a full scale facility is the costs involved. Such systems will be very expensive and that is why major utilities and energy companies argue that governments should shoulder much of the financial risks.

Canada is among the world’s leaders in terms of research in this area. EnCana Corporation, one of North America’s leading natural gas producers, manages the world’s largest greenhouse gas sequestration project at its Weyburn Saskatchewan oilfield operation.

The proposed regulatory regime announced by Canada’s federal government will require that carbon capture and storage be built into all new coal-fired power plants and oil sands facilities beginning in 2012, and be fully operational by 2018.

Many other governments have factored CCS into their long-term strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In West Virginia a project due to begin in 2009 will be the first pilot plant where all the pieces of post-combustion CCS technology will come together. It will test a process to capture and store emissions for a coal-fired power station in Oklahoma which will trap and bury 1.5m tonnes of CO2 a year in a nearby oilfield.

In the U.K. a 400MW CCS post-combustion technology demonstration project will be operational by 2014 and possibly ready for commercial deployment by 2020. The EU has plans for 12 demonstration plants to be up and running by 2015.

Therein lays the conundrum for clean coal advocates. Even if CCS technologies are proven by these various experiments, commercial scale systems are unlikely to come on line foe some time.

Industry’s own predictions don’t foresee carbon capture and storage becoming commercially viable before 2020 or 2030, which could miss a critical threshold for turning things around before irreparable harm is done to global eco-systems according to many scientists and environmental advocates. They argue that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015 then start falling to at least 50 per cent by 2050.

There are many similar ‘doomsday’ type predictions about climate change, but the harsh reality is that burning coal to generate electricity will be with us for many decades to come and the technologies for CCS that are to be built into new or retrofitted plants must be effective if serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are to be achieved.

That is why the Schwarze Pumpe pilot project in Germany and many other full system demonstration projects planned must be encouraged. We need to start the ball rolling now.
Publication Date: 9/18/2008

You can return to the main Market News page, or press the Back button on your browser.