Carbon capture tech is no panacea

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on November 23, 2021

Eco concerns Coal-fired plants still dominate the power scene   -  BusinessLine

Its efficacy remains to be proven. Meanwhile, India should stick to phasing down coal, given growth imperatives

India has been publicly labelled the Bad Boy of the COP26 global environment summit. Behind the scenes, China and the US were also on the same side but with Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav reading out the amendment to the final text, it was inevitable that we got branded the recalcitrant backslider.

In Delhi for the last two weeks, we’ve had a permanent pollution haze hanging over the city. So we only have to step out of the house to understand the urgency of climate change. Cleaning up the environment is about the here-and-now. It isn’t about a clean scrub by 2030 or even more distant dates like 2050 or 2060.

Still, we must deal with cold hard reality on the ground. At COP26, the offending phrase that we insisted on changing was about accelerating the “phase-out” of power plants that don’t install what’s called carbon capture technology. India and China fought to have the words “phase down” inserted into the agreement in place of phase-out. That means they will make efforts to use less rather than an absolute commitment to using no energy at all from such power plants.

There’s good reason for India and China to be reluctant about much-hyped carbon capture technology. For a start, it’s barely in its infancy and hasn’t really established a proven track record yet. There are only 20 projects in commercial use worldwide, the International Energy Agency says. (Elon Musk, though, has tweeted plans to offer $100 million towards a prize for the best carbon capture technology and Microsoft has a “moonshot” carbon capture climate plan.)

To get an idea of what can go wrong, it’s worth taking a look at what happened at Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 2014, expensive carbon capture technology was installed at Unit Three of the ageing power station there. The captured carbon was slated to be sold to a nearby oilfield. Suffice to say, it hasn’t worked as intended and the project is in losses. Most recently, the Saskatchewan government said that technology wouldn’t be used on the power station’s other units which will shut down as scheduled in 2024.

From Boundary, travel to the US where a 2,000-mile pipeline called the Midwest Carbon Express aims to collect the carbon dioxide emitted by ethanol plants on its route. Ultimately, this carbon dioxide waste will be injected into the porous rocks in parts of North Dakota. There, according to its advocates, the carbon dioxide will stay forever.

The project’s backers argue it’ll be possible to store 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually (the equivalent of taking 3.2 million cars off the roads) and thus turn the areas ethanol plants into halo-wearing carbon-neutral players. The project’s estimated to cost roughly $4.5 billion and its backers include farm equipment giant John Deere and big-league financiers. A second project, the Heartland Greenway pipeline, will be 1,300 miles long and will collect carbon dioxide from ethanol and fertiliser plants, mainly in Iowa. Financial giant BlackRock is one of this project’s backers.

Early this month, the US government also announced that it would be throwing in huge subsidies for power plants that install carbon capture equipment. Environmentalists view the new subsidies warily, saying it will lead to lengthening the lives of older plants.

China ahead

It’s a sign of our changing times that China appears to be further down the road with carbon capture than the US or anywhere else in the world with 81 per cent of the carbon capture patents taken out last year. The China National Oil Company’s also looking at injecting carbon dioxide into the seabed. Meanwhile, in Iceland, a private venture has put up what looks like giant air-conditioners that will mix carbon dioxide with water and then inject it into the ground where it is expected to turn into rock in three-four years.

Where does all this leave India? The answer is standing on the sidelines and hoping one of these ventures will be effective at reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Should we have promised at Glasgow to shut down all coal-based thermal plants that haven’t installed carbon capture? 2050 or even 2060 is a long way off but it would still have been laying a bet on a horse that hasn’t quite made it to the racecourse.

Even more innovative — certainly unusual — efforts to control carbon dioxide emissions have been launched in Asia. The Asian Development Bank, backed by mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, the IKEA Foundation and HSBC, have put money on the table to buy up ageing power plants and shut them down. This effort’s called the Energy Transmission Mechanism (ETM). It aims to buy the first coal-fired power station by end-2022.

Gradually, ETM aims to fund renewable energy generation and once they’re up and running they will retire the thermal power stations. Indonesia and the Philippines have signed up for the scheme and Pakistan’s said to be interested. “This is innovative. However, success depends on the ability to invest in commensurate renewable energy,” says Partha Bhattacharya, former Coal India chairman.

There’s more hope that solar energy storage techniques are expected to grow in leaps and bounds during the coming decade. Here, projects are taking shape in countries as far apart as Australia, South Africa and the UK. One US company, EOS, has received orders worth $137 million and this could climb to $300 million by year-end. However, EOS says it can’t up delivery of its battery-driven storage systems till end-2022. Other companies like Tesla are also making big plans in energy storage that everybody’s watching and waiting for.

Nevertheless, the great problem is that India is currently at such a low base that power demand must rise hugely even to satisfy basic needs. Indians consume about 1,200 units per person currently a year. “It has to at least go up to 2,000 units for some substantial improvement in the quality of life. 800 extra units into 1.3 billion people. That is about 1.1 trillion units. It will be just doubling basically,” says an industry expert. He adds that renewable energy can only contribute a fraction of that amount and the rest will still have to come from thermal power.

Could there be lower emissions from thermal power plants? That’s being worked on but it will have to combine with newer technologies that are expected to emerge. On carbon capture, for instance, says an expert: “If gross emissions go down substantially and technology develops to do the capture in a viable manner, then it is not impossible.” But unless technology develops substantially we have a grim decade ahead balancing growth and the environment.


Published on November 23, 2021

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