In the middle of Canada’s windswept Alberta flatlands, the symbolic opening of a steel valve signalled the latest step in the development of a technology that many see as critical in the fight against climate change.

In September 2015, as political, business and community leaders watched on, compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) in liquid form flowed through a pipeline that carried it 65 kilometres (kms) north beneath farmland and forests.

At the end of the pipeline, the CO2 was injected more than two kms underground into a porous rock formation. Natural layers of impermeable rock sealed it in, while a network of sophisticated sensors continuously monitored the containment of the stored CO2 in the years ahead.

It may not have looked dramatic or exciting. But this was carbon capture and storage, or CCS, in action. By September 2016, Quest, as the Shell project is called, had captured and stored more than a million tonnes of CO2 deep underground, roughly equal to the emissions from 250,000 cars.

Quest 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.

Download the transcript - A world view of carbon capture and storage

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 DC, 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

Today, there are 15 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 other CCS projects around the world. 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.

Government support

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.”

Story by Mike Oricchio

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