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Capturing carbon in the quest for cleaner energy
A landmark new project helps advance technology that could play a key role in the transition to a lower-carbon world.
In the middle of Canada’s windswept Alberta flatlands, the symbolic opening of a steel valve signals the latest step in the development of a technology many see as critical in the fight against climate change.
As political, business and community leaders look on, compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) in liquid form flows through a pipeline that will carry it 65 kilometres (kms) north beneath farmland and forests.
At the end of the pipeline, the CO2 will be injected more than two kms underground into a porous rock formation. Natural layers of impermeable rock will seal it in. A network of sophisticated sensors will continuously monitor the containment of the stored CO2 in the years ahead.
It may not look dramatic or exciting. But this is carbon capture and storage, or CCS, in action. Quest, as the Shell project is called, will capture and store more than a million tonnes of CO2 every year, roughly equal to the emissions from 250,000 cars.
That amounts to one-third of the CO2 emissions from the Scotford Upgrader, which processes heavy oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands Project into synthetic crude oil suitable for turning into fuels and other products at the adjacent Scotford Refinery. During the upgrading process, CO2 is separated out with chemicals known as amines. It is then compressed into liquid, ready to be pumped down the pipeline for storage underground.
The launch of Quest comes just weeks before the United Nations summit on climate change in Paris. It is one of a number of projects around the world that, it is hoped, will accelerate the wider adoption of CCS as a technique to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, the main greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes CCS should play a key role in the transition to a lower-carbon world.
CCS can significantly reduce CO2 emissions from power plants and other major industrial processes such as refining, petrochemicals and steelmaking. But cost and technological hurdles have hindered the pace of its development. CCS, for instance, is expensive to fit and adds to the energy needs of a plant. And while all the technologies involved are long-established, combining them is new.
As knowledge helps improve efficiencies, costs are expected to fall. The lessons learned from Quest are being shared openly with others to advance the technology.
“You’ll need a couple of dozen projects around the world to bring costs down,” says Tim Boersma, a fellow and acting director at the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative in Washington D.C., USA. “All the projects are important because they help prove that CCS can be a cost-effective option in the long term, by bringing down the cost of technology, and because they provide data that can help constructive and meaningful debate about the merits and the downsides of CCS technology.”
Closing the gap
The IEA says 30 large-scale CCS facilities must be in operation by the end of this decade for the world to meet its goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. There’s some way to go. Today, there are 22 CCS projects around the world in the operational or construction stages, according to the Global CCS Institute.
High cost and technical challenges were among the reasons the US government cited when it cancelled $1 billion in funding for a major CCS project, FutureGen, that would have reduced carbon emissions from a coal plant in Illinois.
Other governments and companies are pushing ahead, however, with between 20 and 30 more CCS projects in various stages of development, according to the IEA.
Shell, for example, is involved in several CCS projects around the world, including Quest. The company has a 25% interest in the Gorgon liquefied natural gas project which, when complete, will also have one of the world’s largest CCS facilities, capturing between 3 and 4 million tonnes of CO2 every year from gas fields off the coast of Western Australia.
The Peterhead gas-fired power station in Scotland
And the Peterhead project in Scotland, if it goes ahead, would be the world’s first CCS project linked to a gas-fired power station, storing up to 1 million tonnes of carbon every year for up to 15 years in the Goldeneye depleted gas field below the North Sea.
“The UK government has concluded that including CCS in its set of decarbonisation technologies will result in the cheapest way to remove carbon from the economy,” says Bill Spence, Shell’s venture manager for the Peterhead project, which is bidding for a share of £1 billion of government funding.
Spence expects the cost of CCS to come down, in part by sharing infrastructure allowing for a single pipeline and store to accommodate more than one power plant or chemicals and industrial complex.
An effective system for carbon pricing will also help make CCS more economically attractive. “In many ways, CCS is more of a policy challenge than a technology challenge,” says Tim Boersma. “CCS needs a market for carbon to make it more widespread. But it is important to note that a price on carbon alone is not sufficient. Rather, a broad policy framework is required to help address all uncertainties and risks surrounding CCS technology.”
Back in Alberta, members of the Quest team looked on with pride as Shell CEO Ben van Beurden turned the valve to mark the official opening of the project.
From the outset, they engaged closely with the local community, listening to concerns and incorporating suggestions into the design of the project. Provincial and national governments provided C$865 million of funding.
“The Quest launch comes at a pivotal time,” says Tim Wiwchar, Quest project manager. “Hopefully, the message will reach the right policy makers so that CCS becomes an accepted part of the solution to climate change.”
A CO2 injection well at the Quest CCS project in Canada