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Climate Change

Published on April 21st, 2019 | by Michael Barnard

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Carbon Capture’s Global Investment Would Have Been Better Spent On Wind & Solar

April 21st, 2019 by  


Recently, a firm called Carbon Engineering received $68 million in investment from a trio of fossil fuel majors for its air carbon capture solution. This triggered a five-part CleanTechnica series on Carbon Engineering, its approach and why it is not a serious answer to global warming. The process of researching the series and discussions around it raised the question of what the total global investment in carbon capture and sequestration has gained us. The answer is grim, but there’s a great news story that emerges from the sooty ashes of carbon capture.

Wind & solar are displacing roughly 35 times as much CO2 every year as the complete global history of CCS

The first piece of the puzzle is just figuring out how much has been spent on carbon capture schemes globally. There aren’t good sources publicly available on this point, but there are multiple press releases for major investments. Where there was obviously work being done but not dollar values, some extrapolation was required, so the numbers for China and the Middle East are approximations. Those are only capital costs with no operating costs and they are moving millions of tons around, so the operating costs are non-trivial and also unreported in easily available sources. The majority of that money has been spent in the past decade.

The build-up gets close enough to $7.5 billion to round up for the purposes of the analysis.

There’s a global organization with some 40 staff devoted to reporting on carbon capture and producing glowing reports of its successes, the Global CCS Institute. It claims to be “an international climate change organisation whose mission is to accelerate the deployment of CCS as an imperative technology in tackling climate change and providing energy security.” A review of its membership finds a lot of a fossil fuel majors, and the energy security claim is an interesting add-on to its mandate. It seems more like a PR arm of the fossil fuel industry, especially after reviewing global carbon capture results.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Global CCS Institute works really hard to avoid talking even about the capital costs. Its reports talk about the great work being done to reduce costs without actually, you know, specifying how much money has been spent vs how much carbon has been sequestered.

Credit: Global CCS Institute

The Global CCS Institute maintains a database of ‘large’-scale carbon capture facilities. It mostly doesn’t track actual sequestration but merely annual potential. The ‘large’ is in quotes because there are only 19 of them and only three of them exceed a million tons a year. The scale of the problem is in gigatons, so when there are a total of three facilities bigger than 4 orders of magnitude too small, calling the set large is at best relative and in reality a misnomer. It was necessary to extract the data and extrapolate potential net sequestration.

Of the 19 ‘large’-scale plants, only 4 are not just pumping CO2 into oil wells for enhanced oil recovery. Per a workup done for the Carbon Engineering series, every ton of CO2 pumped into the ground returns 0.9 tons of CO2 when the resulting oil is burned. So enhanced oil recovery use of CO2 is at best 10% sequestration, and the vast majority of CO2 in carbon capture schemes is used for that purpose. This doesn’t account for leakages in the process or the carbon-cost of moving millions of tons of CO2 around, but it’s one of a series of efforts made to give carbon capture and sequestration as much credit as possible. It needs it.

Only Norway seems to be serious, and it’s still at a pretty trivial level. Its Sleipner and Snøhvit CO2 Storage facilities have been operating for 1–2 decades and have sequestered about 30 million tons of CO2.

The next part of the analysis was assessing what the carbon avoidance value of spending the same money on wind generation instead. Two approaches were taken. The first was a 1-decade view as the majority of investment was spent then. The second was a 5-decade view aligning wind investments to when carbon capture facilities came on line.

Once again, the carbon capture approaches were treated generously. The decade saw roughly 22 million tons of CO2 sequestered by facilities that became operational. Every CCS facility was considered to achieve maximum annual results for each of the years of the decade they were active even though few of them have achieved that, with Boundary Dam in Canada as one example accidentally operating at 40% for a year without anyone noticing. In at least one case, the approach counts most of a year for CCS when it came in during November of the year. The only hardships imposed on CCS were an accurate accounting for the percentage actually sequestered when it’s being used for EOR and exclusion of historical capture facilities in the 10 year view, but that’s addressed in the 50-year view.

The wind generation was limited to onshore sites. Slightly stale metrics for the capital cost of wind energy ($2 million per MW) were used. Wind generation was assumed to be in average wind regimes as opposed to the Great Plains of the USA so that their capacity factors were only 40%. The expenditure was loaded more to recent than past. The avoided fossil fuel generation was assumed to be 1:1 per MWh, but assumed for the first cut to be an even mix of coal and gas generation for 0.8 tons per MWh of emissions. Carbon capture is being given every opportunity to show its value with these constraints.

Under those generous conditions, if $7.5 billion had been spent on wind energy instead of CCS over the past decade, about 50% more CO2 would have been avoided than spending the same money on sequestration. About 33 million tons of CO2 wouldn’t have been emitted by fossil fuel sources while about 22 million tons were sequestered by more recent schemes.

If the avoided generation was all coal with its 1.1 tons of CO2 per MWh, then the avoided CO2 would be in the range of 50 million tons of CO2. If it were replacing coal and gas according to their percentages of 38.3% and 23.1% of global generation respectively, then the avoidance would be in the range of 40 million tons.

This excludes the long-running (and pretty cheap) Norwegian approaches as they are outside of the limit, and long-term enhanced oil recovery feeds such as the US Shute Creek Gas Processing Plant which has been pumping out CO2 for enhanced oil recovery since 1986.

To avoid excluding large sequestration schemes, the 50-year perspective is useful, spending roughly equivalent amounts of capital on wind farms instead of sequestration in each year a major CCS facility came on line, starting with 1972. Again the facilities were assumed to be operating at maximum sequestration each year, the undoubtedly higher operational costs were ignored and zero leakage in the process including in the long-term store was assumed. For the wind generation, the capacity factor for older wind farms was dropped from the 40% used in the initial model to 30%. The table is too large to include, so results will be summarized. If anyone wants to look at the underlying data in detail, it’s available.

If wind generation had been built each year instead of the various CCS schemes, roughly 122 million tons of CO2 would have been avoided instead of the very generous 85 million tons the schemes managed. That’s 37 million tons or 43% more. Frankly, it was surprising to see that even under generous treatment carbon capture achieved this much.

If the avoided generation was all coal with its 1.1 tons of CO2 per MWh, then the avoided CO2 would be in the range of 170 million tons of CO2, double the best case scenario for CCS. If it were replacing coal and gas according to their percentages of 38.3% and 23.1% of global generation respectively, then the avoidance would be in the range of 130 million tons, over 50% better.

Another piece of context: Global oil and gas revenues were about $2 trillion in 2017 alone. They’ve managed to get governments to shell out for a lot of the carbon capture costs. Let’s assume they managed 25% coverage to be, yet again, overly generous. The $7.5 billion at 75% over 10 years turns into about $600 million a year. A little math tells us that CCS is consuming at best 0.03% of the annual budgets of oil and gas globally. Interestingly, that’s about exactly the amount that three oil and gas majors ‘invested’ in the Carbon Engineering direct air capture company recently.

Does that look serious? Or does that look like PR dollars for social license to continue to pump oil?

Right now there is roughly 600 GW of wind generation capacity globally. It is displacing about 1,800 million tons of CO2 annually, about 22 times as much as the best case global total scenario for CCS. There is another 400 GW of utility-scale solar capacity, which is displacing roughly another 1,200 million tons of CO2 annually. Wind and solar are displacing between them roughly 35 times as much CO2 every year as the complete global history of CCS.

We’re seeing about 100 GW of new wind and solar capacity annually around the world. That 100 GW of capacity will displace roughly 300 million tons every year for its lifetime. Given the roughly 30-year lifespan, each year we are building wind and solar capacity that will displace roughly 9,000 million tons of CO2, over 100 times the total global carbon capture history. And once again, the operational and maintenance costs of wind and solar are a fraction of the CCS approaches.

CCS is a rounding error in global warming mitigation. It’s hard to see how it could possibly be more. And it brings into stark relief the unfortunate reality that the IPCC depends far too much on carbon capture and sequestration approaches in terms of dealing with global warming.


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About the Author

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric, a Medium publication. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.



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