Locked-in

The answer as to whether Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) is a false hope or an inconvenient truth remains as uncertain as ever

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Lord Stern’s gloomy new report, which warns how meeting international climate targets could lead to massive market losses, mentions that even an idealised deployment of CCS wouldn’t see it rolled out en masse until 2030.

For many that sums up the problem with CCS: it’s currently a pipedream and even if we make it a reality it’ll be too late. This is highlighted by the fact that the vast majority of current fossil fuel plant are not compatible with CCS.

Yet supporters of the technology maintain that the “inevitability” of fossil fuel use well into the second half of the 21st century makes CCS essential.

The majority of energy modelling scenarios support this assertion, partly because the days of nuclear being able to provide a significant percentage of low carbon baseload are over – Fukushima saw to that. 

And while more developed countries can look forward to days when greater energy efficiency is combined with high penetrations of wind, solar and energy storage, this surely overlooks the reality in the developing world, where fossil fuel plant continue to be built at an alarming rate.

The probability that CCS will have some role to play, therefore, seems high.

So what’s new?

Having paid little attention to the debate for well over a year, a lecture by Imperial College London’s Professor Geoffrey Maitland last week made it clear that little, unfortunately, has changed.

Words not actions – our undoing on so many energy issues.

The UK missed a massive opportunity to lead on CCS when the government failed to back BP’s proposal for the Peterhead gas power plant in 2007. Since then other opportunities have also come and gone, and so the debate continues.

The ultimate lock-in

Perhaps the real problem with CCS is not how much it will cost or whether it might provide an answer to today’s climate change concerns, but that it plays no role in the long term future of energy.

It locks the world into a high carbon economy at a time when tremendous progress on renewables in the last two decades suggests that there’s some hope of getting out.

What use will three or four generations from now have with a network of pipelines and a huge amount of liquidised CO2 hopefully remaining out of harm’s way below the ocean?

Making a measured judgement on CCS is tough as it requires consideration of global energy trends, climate modelling and fossil fuel estimations.

But considering its huge potential to limit CO2 emissions it certainly needs to be made an option. Building commercial scale projects are the obvious first step, something that Imperial College London’s new CCS centre (launched today) hopes to assist. 

Then the world can decide whether to go with CCS or not. Then again it might not. With CCS little is certain. 

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