Is Carbon Capture Technology Scalable?

by Jane Twitmyer

When talking about the future of Dominion Energy in a recent TV interview, Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell mentioned carbon sequestration as an approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the company moves toward a “zero net” carbon energy mix.  In the past, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) seemed to be going nowhere. But Farrell’s comments prompted me to wonder what the current status of CCS technology was. 

Today, according to the Global CCS Institute, there are 19 large-scale commercial carbon capture and sequestration facilities operating around the world, ten of which are in the United States. All of them are pulling carbon dioxide from the emissions of an associated factory or power plant. Trouble is … the carbon has nowhere to go, so both removing and sequestering the carbon adds major costs to electricity generation.

Once you’ve captured the large amounts of carbon dioxide emitted from the electricity plants, there’s the small matter of where you store it. Under everyday conditions carbon dioxide is a gas, so it takes up a huge amount of space, and we’re producing it in vast quantities. An option with its own set of complications is to turn the carbon dioxide into a liquid (so it takes up a tiny fraction as much volume) and then pump it deep underground where it hopefully will remain. The thought of storing it deep in the ocean has been discarded because the ocean has already acted as a CO2 sink and appears to be reaching its limit absorbing CO2 without creating great damage.

CCS technology plays only a marginal role in cutting emissions today. Each plant can cost $1 billion or more, and so far governments have been reluctant to either subsidize it or to put a price on carbon. Today’s 20 large-scale projects can capture about 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, but that is only about 1% of global emissions. Another drawback adding to the cost of CCS is that it requires considerable extra energy (some estimates say 25–40 percent, others 30–60 percent) to operate. The extra energy could almost double the cost of electricity.

Proposals for two new CCS plants, one in New Mexico and one in Puerto Rico, are being challenged. Assumptions about their stated capacity and capture rates, and their ability to sell the sequestered carbon and actually put it to use all have been challenged. The most promising use for captured CO2 is in the process of producing more oil.

Here is the wrinkle Dominion must be hoping for …. “The Allam Cycle aims to be cost-competitive with conventional combined-cycle natural gas plants while also capturing 99 percent of CO2. Several of the facilities selected within DOE’s FEED-study support include retrofitting natural gas-fired power plants with CCS.” Can these assumptions also be challenged, or will they do what the DOE study claims? If they do, that would certainly extend the life and use of the natural gas Dominion has bet on. Both retrofitting and new plant technology could keep natural gas in the generation mix longer than it now appears.

The market today is awash in natural gas and the price has dropped below viable drilling costs. The gas glut is not just in the U.S., but in Europe, Asia and around the globe, and demand is flat. Here in Appalachia, frackers face an uphill battle against negative cash flows. Shares of the publicly traded E&P companies in Appalachia have plummeted through 2019. Chevron, who had hoped to diversify away from oil when it initially purchased $4.1 billion in Appalachian shale assets, is writing-off $5-6 billion, after-tax, and has begun sales effort for its Appalachian holdings. Finally, utilities, like Dominion, are over-purchasing natural gas and could soon be left with the same stranded asset burdens that now plague the coal industry.

Environmentalists tend to see CCS as a distraction from the need to convert humankind quickly to renewable energy. Saving the earth as we know it, according to the 97% scientific consensus, means moving quickly to stop accumulating greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. It also means taking the kind of steps The Royal Bank of Scotland is planning. The bank will end coal financing by 2030 and stop lending and underwriting companies with more than 15% of their activities related to coal by the end of 2021, unless they have a transition plan in line with the Paris Agreement.

Jane Twitmyer, a renewable energy advocate and former consultant, lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains.