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Thursday, October 9, 2014

The cruel economics of CCS

The world’s first commercial scale CCS-equipped power plant has been switched on in Canada. The Boundary Dam power plant was retrofitted with CCS equipment that will capture 90% of its CO2 emissions and either sell them for enhanced oil recovery or store them permanently underground.

There are 22 CCS projects worldwide that are either operational or under construction, according to the Global CCS Institute. Is Boundary Dam the start of something big? It had better be.  CCS is essential to preserving a habitable climate.

This Reuters story looks closer at the Boundary Dam project – and the cruel economics of carbon capture. Refurbishing and retrofitting the plant with CCS equipment cost about three times as much as a similar-sized plant without CCS. About 18% of the cost was subsidized by the Canadian government, and CO2 sales for EOR will help. But CCS systems also impose an “energy penalty:”

Separating CO2 from the other gases in the plant’s exhaust stream (mainly nitrogen and water vapor), compressing it, transporting it by pipeline and injecting it deep underground under high pressure all need a substantial amount of work and consume a significant amount of the heat and electrical output from the power plant…
The penalty must be paid by burning more fuel or reducing the net amount of electricity supplied. At Boundary Dam, the utility opted for 20 percent lower output. But:
Even a 20-30 percent energy penalty is enormous and would radically affect the operations of coal-fired power plants in North America and the rest of the world if all power plants were retrofitted with CCS systems.
Retrofitting all coal-fired plants in the United States would ncrease coal consumption by 400-600 million tonnes per year, or cut their net electrical output by 75-100 gigawatts, more than the peak demand of California, according to…Harvard and MIT researchers.
The bottom line:
CCS will only be competitive if the energy penalty is offset by carbon taxes, carbon prices, or other policy measures to level the playing field by pushing up the cost of electricity from other fossil fuel plants.
The economics of CCS are cruel, and point to the need for CCUS and for the development of carbon networks like the one first proposed in my days of state service in Pennsylvania. But the consequences of abandoning this essential climate stabilization tool will be far crueler.

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