Despite the progress on renewables we noted last time, coal and other fossil fuels will remain a key part of the energy mix for many years. They provide more reliable base load electricity and are also often associated with political considerations. China and India are stuck with coal for decades yet.
This means we need to look at ways of taking carbon out of the emissions generated by fossil sources.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a process that captures CO2 from large sources such as a cement factory or power plant, and stores it in an underground geological formation. Although this technology has been around for over 40 years, its efficacy is still debatable. The Sleipner gasfield in the North Sea, which started capturing carbon emissions in 1996, removes around 1m tonnes of CO2 every year. The use of CCS could reduce CO2 emissions from the stacks of coal power plants by 85–90% or more.
Critics say large-scale CCS deployment is unproven and decades awayfrom being commercialised. There is a risk of leakage during the extremely long storage time required. There is an “energy penalty “– the reduction in overall plant efficiency due to the carbon capturing process – as much as 40 percent of the energy produced by a power station.
“Direct Air Capture” is a process of removing CO2 directly from the air. Combining DAC with carbon storage could constitute a form of climate engineering if deployed at large scale. However, this area is still in its infancy.
Other approaches may encourage CCS by making it more financially attractive, using some of the CO2 as a valuable raw material. Examples include using CO2 in fertilisers, beer bubbles and building blocks. Carbon usage firms could be carbon-negative: taking in more CO2 than they put out. Tata plans to refine the carbon emissions to make a high-grade liquid version of carbon dioxide which will help make sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, which is in high demand by the pharmaceutical sector to help treat conditions from heartburn to kidney disease. It is also found in ear and eye drops.
More directly we could turn to natural ways of removing CO2from the atmosphere – by planting trees. As trees grow, they absorb and store carbon dioxide. New research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. This would require 1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow. At the very least, stopping deforestation would be hugely beneficial.
Nuclear energy is often touted as a “zero-carbon” energy source. However, the scale of the developments themselves has a high-carbon load, and the virtually indefinite waste storage requirements are daunting. New small-scale reactors using thorium are much safer and very low in harmful radiation – thorium is also widely available. One study suggested that the overall potential, thorium-based power “can mean a 1000+ year solution or a quality low-carbon bridge to truly sustainable energy sources solving a huge portion of mankind’s negative environmental impact”. Canada, China, India and Germany are all interested.
Finally, there is fusion energy, often described as “always 30 years away”. 35 national governments from around the world are collaborating on ITER in Europe, a massive system designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy, funded to the tune of billions of dollars. But several companies continue to invest significant sums in new approaches. Optimists believe that we are five years away from the first proof-of-concept fusion energy demonstration plant and 15 years from a commercial roll-out at scale.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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