Greenpeace report finds CCS is unproven, risky and expensive

Feature story - 5 May, 2008
As the seventh annual Carbon Capture & Sequestration conference gets underway in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Greenpeace has launched 'False Hope' - a report critically examining the status and promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The conclusion is that, despite what the coal and power industries claim, CCS will not prevent more than a whiff of global warming pollution from reaching the atmosphere in the next few decades.

Coal-fired power station smokestacks. Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and the largest single contributor to climate change.

CCS aims to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power station smokestacks and dump it underground. Although it's being described as a "silver bullet" solution in combating the climate crisis, CCS has yet to be used on any large-scale coal-fired power plant anywhere in the world. And, as 'False Hope' reveals, there are huge unknowns regarding feasibility, cost, environmental implications and liability which have not been thought through.

The increase in greenhouse gas emissions needs to be halted in the next decade and emissions then need to be cut significantly. CCS will not be ready in time. Ironically, the suggestion that the technology may be made to work some time in the future is being used to justify building new coal-fired power plants without any form of carbon 'capture'.

What makes most sense is not building coal-fired power plants in the first place. Carbon is already 'stored' safely underground: we call it coal. Let's leave it there. Adapting an old phrase, "when you find yourself in a (climate) hole, the first thing is to stop digging".

It is a perverse situation where policymakers who claim to recognise the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions are considering bankrolling the development of an unproven technology over funding proven pollution-free renewable energy sources and energy efficiency improvements.

CCS is unproven, risky and expensive and investing in it threatens to undermine the range of clean energy solutions which are available right now.

CCS not ready in time

Climate experts say the worst impacts of climate change can be averted by levelling off global warming pollution by 2015 and turning down the burner after that. But the earliest that CCS will be ready is 2030. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is even less optimistic. The IPCC doesn't see CCS being commercially viable until even later - around 2050.

CCS wastes energy and resources

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide would be a major energy consumer, gobbling up anything from 10 to 40% of a power plant's electricity output. So more coal needs to be mined, transported, and burned for a power station to generate the same amount of energy as it would without CCS.

Demands for cooling water also increase dramatically. Power stations with capture technology could require 90% more freshwater than those without. CCS is expected to erase gains in power plant energy efficiency made over the past 50 years, and increase resource consumption by one-third.

Storing carbon underground is risky

It is uncertain whether there is sufficient suitable space underground to bury enough carbon to have any meaningful climate impact.

Humanity has no experience of safely storing anything forever. But locking up carbon dioxide underground in perpetuity is exactly what would need to be accomplished with CCS. A leakage rate of just 1% could potentially undermine any climate benefit. Tests have thrown up unexpected results, such CO2 disintegrating storage materials.

CCS is expensive and undermines real solutions to climate change

CCS could well mean electricity price rises of between 21 and 91%. Clean energy sources, such as wind power, provide electricity much more cheaply than coal-fired plants fitted with CCS will ever be able to. The funding to get CCS off the ground - including substantial sums of taxpayer's money - comes at the expense of real solutions. In countries it has been pursued, CCS has taken up an increasing share of energy research and development budgets whereas funding for renewable technologies and energy efficiency has stagnated or declined.

In the US, for example, the Department of Energy has asked for the CCS programme budget to be raised to US $623.6 million. At the same time, it is scaling back renewable energy research to US $146.2 million. Worse still, legislation introduced on Capitol Hill would allocate a whopping US $424 billion to a dedicated fund for CCS. Australia, meanwhile, has three research centres devoted to fossil fuels, including one committed to CCS, but none for renewable energy technology.

CCS and liability: risky business

Large-scale CCS applications pose significant and new liability risks, including negative impacts on human health, damage to ecosystems, groundwater contamination such as the pollution of drinking water and increased greenhouse gas emissions from leakage. 

Again, energy interests want a free ride by being relieved of liability in return for investing in CCS. Some demand they be relieved of ownership of CO2 at the power plant gates, or that they remain liable for CO2 dumped underground for a mere ten years.

The costs of any mishaps would have to be covered from the public purse.

The extent of support offered to the recently collapsed FutureGen project in the US gives some inkling of the real costs of CCS. FutureGen was the Bush Administration's flagship CCS project. It not only received unprecedented public funds (to the tune of US $1.3 bn) but was protected from financial and legal liability in the event of an unanticipated release of carbon, indemnified from lawsuits and even had its insurance premiums paid.

The alternative to CCS: renewables and energy efficiency

Renewable energy and energy saving have proven track records in meeting energy needs safely, cleanly, predictably and cost-effectively. The world has sufficient technically accessible renewable energy to meet global energy needs six times over.

Compare that to the risky and expensive option of CCS which is still on the drawing board.

Full details of how clean energy and energy efficiency can cut almost halve global CO2 emissions  by 2050 are contained in Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution blueprint.

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