Fossil fuels still provide the majority of the world’s electricity, and power generation is the largest emitter of carbon in the entire energy sector. The global community has committed to the goal of limiting the increase in the average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. A low-carbon future means tackling emissions from the fossil-fuelled power fleet using every means available. In the future carbon capture technologies play an important role in supporting modern and flexible power systems

What is carbon capture?

Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) encompass methods and technologies to remove CO2 from the flue gas and the atmosphere, followed by recycling the CO2 for utilization and determining safe and permanent storage options.  Despite the adoption of alternative energy sources and energy-efficient systems to reduce the rate of CO2 emissions, the cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to be reduced to limit the detrimental impacts of climate change [IPCC, 2013].

Therefore, regardless of the deployment of clean and efficient energy solutions, CCUS technologies need to be implemented.  Efforts to limit rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations while meeting increasing global energy demand can only be achieved by deploying a comprehensive portfolio of technologies that include alternative energy sources, energy-efficient systems, and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) measures.

Despite the adoption of alternative energy sources and energy-efficient systems to reduce the rate of CO2 emissions, the cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to be reduced to limit the detrimental impacts of climate change. Therefore, regardless of the deployment of clean and efficient energy solutions, CCUS technologies need to be implemented. CCUS involves multiple aspects that need to be in sync for the successful removal or capture of CO2 from the flue gas or the atmosphere, followed by utilization and storage.

Why is carbon capture necessary?

Power plants fuelled by coal and gas continue to dominate the global electricity sector –they account for almost two-thirds of power generation, a share that has remained relatively unchanged since 2000 despite the advent of low-cost variable renewable sources. In absolute terms, power generated from fossil fuels has increased by 70% since 2000, reflecting the steady rise in global demand for power.

Coal remains by far the largest fuel source for power generation, at 38%, followed by gas at about 20%. In the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and India, the coal-fired share of total generation is higher than 60%. While we see a temporary dent in coal generation and higher shares for variable renewables due to the Covid‑19 pandemic, these shares could return to historic trends as electricity demand recovers.

Power is the largest carbon emitter in the energy sector, creating almost 40% of global energy-related emissions. Despite the pressing need to confront the major causes of climate change, emissions in 2019 from the power sector were only slightly below their 2018 all-time high at 13.6 Gt CO2.

The global power sector is therefore expected to meet rising demand as access to electricity grows and to provide for a low-carbon future where end-use activities are increasingly electrified. Meeting long-term climate goals without applying carbon capture, utilisation and storage technologies at scale in the power sector requires the virtual elimination of coal-fired power generation and, eventually, that of gas-fired generation as well, with significant early retirements and potential for stranded assets.

Carbon capture technologies play an important role in providing dispatchable, low-carbon electricity – in 2040, plants with these technologies generate 5% of global power. CCUS-equipped coal and gas plants become increasingly important for secure, sustainable and affordable power systems in the IEA Sustainable Development Scenario.

Carbon capture, storage and utilisation allow these plants to continue providing these benefits and meet long-term flexibility requirements, such as annual seasonality.

How does carbon capture work?

Carbon capture involves trapping the carbon dioxide at its emission source, transporting it to a storage location (usually deep underground) and isolating it. This means we could potentially block excess CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

There are three main steps to carbon capture and storage (CCS):

  1. Trapping and separating the CO2 from other gases
  2. Transporting this captured CO2 to a storage location
  3. Storing CO2 far away from the atmosphere (underground or deep in the ocean)

Carbon is taken from a power plant source in three basic ways: Post-combustion, precombustion and oxyfuel combustion. With post-combustion carbon capture, the CO2 is grabbed after the fossil fuel is burned. The burning of fossil fuels produces something called flue gases, which include CO2, water vapour, nitrogen and sulfur dioxide.

With Precombustion carbon capture, carbon is trapped and removed from fossil fuels before the combustion process ends.  With Oxy-fuel combustion carbon capture, the power plant burns fossil fuels — but not in ordinary air. Instead, the fuels are burned in a gas mixture containing lots and lots of pure oxygen. This results in a flue gas whose two main components are CO2 and water. Afterwards, it’s possible to separate the CO2 by compressing and cooling the water [sources: National Energy Technology Laboratory and National Resources of Canada].

How much does carbon capture cost?

Several factors can explain the slow uptake of CCUS, but the high cost is one of the most frequently heard. Commentators often cite CCUS as being too expensive and unable to compete with wind and solar electricity given their spectacular fall in costs over the last decade, while climate policies – including carbon pricing – are not yet strong enough to make CCUS economically attractive.

The analysis suggests coal-sourced CO2 emissions can be stored in this region for $52–$60 tonne, whereas the cost to store emissions from natural-gas-fired plants ranges from approximately $80 to $90. Storing emissions offshore increases the lowest total costs of CCS to over $60 per ton of CO2 for coal. As there is sufficient onshore storage in the northeastern and midwestern United States, offshore storage is not necessary or economical unless there are additional costs or suitability issues associated with the onshore reservoirs. 

Carbon capture projects going around the world

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities are considered key contributors to emissions reduction, with 18 of the world’s large-scale CCS plants currently capturing approximately 40 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of carbon dioxide (CO2), according to The Global CCS Institute.

Century Plant – 8.4mtpa

Owned by Occidental Petroleum, the Century natural gas processing facility in West Texas, US, is the world’s single biggest CCS plant.

Sandridge Energy and Occidental Petroleum entered an agreement to build and operate the Century CCS facility in 2008. Built with an investment of approximately $1.1bn, the plant captures CO2 that is used for Occidental’s enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects in the Permian Basin.

Located in Pecos County, the CO2 capturing plant began operations in November 2010 through the commissioning of its first train, which has a design capacity of 5Mtpa of CO2 capture. The second train was commissioned in late-2012 to add a further capacity of 3.4Mtpa of CO2.

Shute Creek Gas Processing Plant – 7mtpa

Owned by ExxonMobil, the Shute Creek gas processing plant is located in Wyoming, US. The CCS facility, built near LaBarge, Lincoln County, captures approximately 365 million cubic feet per day (Mcf) of CO2, which is equivalent to removing more than 1.5 million cars off the road.

The CO2 captured through the pre-combustion method by the Shute Creek gas processing plant is used in enhanced oil recovery operations at several oil fields in Wyoming. The Exxon, Anadarko, and ChevronTexaco pipelines are used for transporting the CO2 from the Shute Creek CCS facility.

Great Plains Synfuels Plant – 3mtpa

The Great Plains Synfuels Plant, which is owned and operated by Dakota Gasification, was built near Beulah, North Dakota, with an investment of $2.1bn. The facility captures and compresses up to three million tonnes of CO2 a year.

The CO2 captured by the facility is a byproduct of a coal gasification process that produces natural gas from coal.

Petra Nova Carbon Capture – 1.6mtpa

WA Parish CCS project, also known as the Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project, is located in Thompsons, Fort Bend County, approximately 60km southwest of Houston, Texas.

Commissioned in 2017, the project is designed to capture roughly 90% of the CO2 from a 240MW slipstream of flue gas from the Petra Nova power station’s existing 610MW coal-fired unit eight, and extract approximately 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

Some carbon capture technology developments

Carbon capture companies are leading the way in the race against climate change and global heating. They’re developing and deploying new, scalable, carbon capture technology that will enable us to stop the flow of carbon into the atmosphere and even remove the historical carbon dioxide that we’ve already emitted.

Aker Carbon Capture

Aker Carbon Capture is one of the few and largest publicly traded pure-play carbon capture companies. It is headquartered in Norway with representation in several Northern European countries and a global reach through the Aker group. Aker Carbon Capture ACC was listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange in August 2020. 

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Climeworks is a Swiss company, providing a solution for tackling historic emissions called direct air capture. The company uses a technology that consists of modular CO2 collectors stacked to build machines of any size. The industrial machine’s fans draw air into the plant, where a highly selective new filter material is known as sorbent binds the CO2 in conjunction with the moisture in the air. 

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Carbfix is a carbon storage company that has developed an entirely novel approach to CO2 sequestration. The company’s technology stores CO2 and other gasses from emissions permanently as rocks. CO2 charged water is injected into the basalts to promote the carbonization of CO2. The dissolution of CO2 into the aqueous phase facilitates the mineralization of CO2. It has been demonstrated that over 95% of CO2 captured and injected was turned into a rock in the subsurface in less than two years.

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To begin, it’s important to remember that CCS is not a license to continue emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. Whatever the future holds for CCS, other emission-reduction efforts will still be necessary. However, CCS provides a way to clean up some of our existing power plants.

According to a 2020 report from the Global CCS Institute, there are now “65 commercial CCS facilities in various stages of development globally.”

Yet some critics worry about the economics of CCS. Electric cars and solar panels are commodities that can be marketed and sold to individuals and private organizations. But in contrast, finding ways to monetize captured CO2 has proven difficult.

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