Commentary

Energy Union success requires renewed attention to carbon capture and storage

By

Chemical works

Policy makers are gathering in Riga to consider priorities for the Europe’s new Energy Union agenda. In the last few days, leaked drafts of the Commission’s thinking have emerged, which relegate carbon capture and storage to a topic for research interest rather than infrastructure deployment. This approach would repeat the failings of past policy efforts on CCS. Instead, the Commission must grasp hold of CCS as a means of enabling a sustainable and competitive European economy while delivering on Europe’s deep decarbonisation objectives.

Achieving an Energy Union

The five dimensions of the Energy Union seek to deliver an integrated, secure, sustainable, accessible and affordable energy system for Europe. This will set the context for consideration of Europe’s recently agreed objectives on climate and energy out to 2030, as a milestone on the route to a decarbonised economy by 2050. We must continue to remember that 2030 efforts are not the end goal – Europe has already committed to achieving overall reductions of CO2 of 80-95% by 2050. This will require transformational change across all sectors of the economy, and will only be achieved through improved forethought as to how new technologies and infrastructures can best be deployed.

Ahead of tomorrow’s Riga conference, the Commission’s non-paper rightly highlights the importance of energy efficiency, renewables deployment and strengthening regional interconnection, but makes no reference to the equally critical need for CCS. But without substantial deployment of CCS the objectives of Energy Union cannot be met in the period to 2030 and beyond to 2050. Further, this deployment of CCS, as with achieving wider deployment of renewables, requires strategic oversight to ensure enhanced regional cooperation and the provision of the necessary enabling infrastructures of CO2 transport and storage.

Carbon Capture and Storage: proven and capable

CCS is not a simple add-on. Instead, it is an infrastructure category that enables the near-complete decarbonisation of large stationary sources of CO2 from industry and power generation through selective capture of CO2 from waste gases, and its subsequent transportation to, and secure emplacement in deep (below ≥1kms) geological structures. CCS is an explicit climate mitigation strategy: it directly addresses emissions from the use of fossil hydrocarbons, which in some industrial sectors are unavoidable - such as steel, cement and chemicals. Moreover, the application of CCS is the only way that continued use can be made of domestic European fossil fuel resources into the medium term. Even more importantly, when used in combination with sustainably-sourced bioenergy, CCS has the unique potential to achieve a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

CCS technologies are widely used in industrial applications, with captured CO2 routinely used for products ranging from soft drinks and fire extinguishers through to large-scale injection into oil and gas fields to increase fossil fuel production. The challenge facing policy makers is to create the policy drivers that will enable these available technology options to be deployed on time and at scale. Internationally, CCS projects are now operational and under construction on commercial scale gas production, power generation and industrial plants in North America and China.

But Europe is being left behind. While other countries are doing CCS, the latest thinking from the Commission seems to suggest that Europe should retreat to research activities alone.

The Geography and Geology of CCS: delivering enabling infrastructures

Europe has substantial opportunities for secure geological CO2 storage, particularly in the North Sea and Baltic regions. These have sufficient capacity for many decades worth of EU emissions. However, sources of CO2 emissions and appropriate (and socially permitted) geologies for CO2 storage are in most cases not co-located, while the infrastructure required to access them is as yet non-existant.

This presents two specific challenges at European scale: the confirmation of sufficient CO2 storage capacity, and the provision of (trans-boundary) access to that CO2 storage capacity. It is essential that both are delivered at scale to reduce costs and enable access from a range of industrial sectors. However the long lead times for infrastructure development and CO2 storage appraisal mean that deploying CCS at scale by 2030 requires efforts to start now. Strategic and timely actions are required, and will need to be coordinated at European level.

The irony is that the Commission has tools available to take forward an infrastructure-first agenda on CCS. Usefully, Projects of Common Interest provide an existing instrument to facilitate the development of CO2 pipeline and shipping routes. In parallel, CO2 storage assessment could use readily available CO2 from industrial sources to undertake preparatory injections and confirm storage capacity.

The Commission is also looking at how to renew the NER300 funding mechanism to become the proposed Innovation Fund as part of the EU 2030 framework. With the fund set to have the welcome inclusion of industrial sectors as well as power generation, funding can be targeted on actions that will deliver greatest impact in the public interest and recoup time lost due to past policy failings. Here, it should be noted that similar coordinated actions undertaken by the US Department of Energy to support CO2 storage pilots, CO2 pipeline infrastructures and CCS demonstration projects now enables CCS to form a major component of the US federal governments decarbonisation strategy.

The reality is that CCS needs specific attention to enable strategic deployment at scale and on time. This can most rapidly and reliably be realised through the facilitation and support of cluster development, such as that being proposed by the Teesside Collective of industrial emitters in North East England. The failings of the NER300 approach show that isolated ‘demonstration’ projects cannot deliver the same value or timeliness, and don’t unlock the broader opportunities for regional governments, industries and workers.

Energy Union governance and cooperation: assessing and assisting CCS deployment

Under the EU2030 framework, Member States will need to develop National Plans for decarbonisation. It is likely that many will need to include CCS, in particular for industrial sources, in (or even prior to) the 2030s. Coherent delivery of these CCS contributions will need identification, investigation and licensing of sufficient CO2 storage capacity, and effective means of access. In many cases, the realities of European geography and geology suggest that substantial trans-boundary shipment and storage of CO2 will be a necessity. Thus, the successful deployment of CCS by Member States will be conditional on effective regional plans to develop shared CO2 storage resources.

The EU has an essential role in facilitating this forward-looking cooperation. This is a challenge that fits with the EU’s remit on infrastructure development and coordination of activities among member states. The Commission should be driving an infrastructure-first model of CCS deployment, not sitting back and hoping that more research will save the day.

 

Dr Vivian Scott and Professor Stuart Haszeldine are from Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage (SCCS), the largest academic CCS research group in the UK. Founded in 2005, SCCS is a partnership of the British Geological Survey, Heriot-Watt University, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh, working with other universities across Scotland.