Much-Ballyhooed Carbon Capture Plant Hasn't Stored a Thing

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2009 5:08 pm

coal trainWhen a small coal-fired power plant opened in northern Germany last September, it was heralded as the first example of a technology that could save us from the ravages of global warming, while allowing us to keep burning cheap and plentiful coal. The demonstration plant, built and operated by the Swedish power company Vattenfall, was designed to capture its carbon dioxide emissions and to pump them deep underground in a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS). But the project has thus far been a victim of “numbyism” – not under my backyard [The Guardian].

The plant’s managers say they’ve captured about 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide, but they haven’t been able to pipe it underground to the selected underground zone, where scientists say the atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide would instead be trapped in the rocks. Locals, apparently, aren’t so sure about the technology. “It was supposed to begin injecting by March or April of this year but we don’t have a permit. This is a result of the local public having questions about the safety of the project,” said Staffan Gortz, head of carbon capture and storage communication at Vattenfall. He said he did not expect to get a permit before next spring: “People are very, very sceptical” [The Guardian].

Many countries have pinned their hopes for mitigating the impacts of global warming on carbon capture and storage, especially as binding rules on greenhouse gas emissions seem likely in the near future. If power plants like Vattenfall’s work out, the pay-off could be vast: the International Energy Agency has estimated CCS could account for one-fifth of the emissions reductions required in the energy and industrial sectors by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Achieving those reductions without CCS would cost 70 per cent more, the IEA found [Financial Times].

But in addition to public resistance, there are numerous technical and financial hurdles to overcome. Each demonstration CCS plant is expected to cost more than $1 billion, and companies have demanded government subsidies to build them. The first CCS project in the United States, the FutureGen power plant, has been beset by delays and cost overruns. In addition, power companies will have to find cheaper and more efficient ways to process the carbon dioxide to make the operations economically viable. But if Vattenfall executive Reinhardt Hassa is correct, companies, governments and the public may have no choice but to find a way to make CCS work. “We will use fossil fuels in the coming years – not just 10 years, but 50, 60, maybe 70 years,” Mr Hassa said. “We can’t do it without CCS” [Financial Times].

Related Content:
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80beats: World’s First Really Clean Coal Plant Gets a Try-Out in Germany
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DISCOVER: The Key to Safe and Effective Carbon Sequestration

Image: flickr / wsilver

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    If it poisons the air, it can probably poison the ground, too.

  • Joe Bogus

    re: #1, above.

    Thank God robots aren’t running things. Yet.

  • wjv

    CO2 wouldn’t harm the soil really, It could potentially make it more acidic by dissolving into the water table as carbonic acid (similar to whats happening in the ocean). But the real problem is how can one be sure that the CO2 will remain underground for multiple centuries?

    If the CO2 is leaking out even at 0.05% of the volume per year, then it hasn’t really been effective and probably the endeavor wasn’t worth the cost and effort. A much worse case scenario is that some sort of geological disturbance affects the CO2 storage volume and releases a large portion of whats stored there. Since CO2 is denser than the other components of the air it would remain as a several foot thick layer above the ground until it dissipates and mixes completely from air currents. If this were to occur near a town or group of people they would suffocate if the layer was six feet thick or more.

  • chris

    We need to create an organism that breaths in CO2, breaths out O2, and poops diamonds.

  • Shaithis

    Sure there is an alternative to CCS. Don’t worry about it! There is still no conclusive proof that CO2 is going to or has changed the climate. Period! Pumping tons of this stuff underground just seems like a sure fire way to cause lots of other REAL problems.

  • http://www.beezernotes.com beezer

    It’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to keep fouling our own nest: To keep subsidizing fossil fuels at the expense of cleaner technologies.

    Put the money instead into R&D on clean technology advancement. Otherwise we’ll just keep defoilating our forests, destroying entire valleys and leveling mountains, polluting aquifers, spewing mercury into the air we breath and God knows what else we don’t even understand today.

  • Ben

    Robot, CO2 isn’t poisonous. It is odorless, tasteless, and is as dangerous as water (ie: too much will kill you, but it takes insanely large quantities for that to happen).

    Chris, I know that you were joking, but please read the 1st law of thermodynamics

    Beezer, coal plants are cleaner now than they have ever been. People in America and Europe breathe less pollution now than they have since Roman times (indoor wood and coal fires are the greatest source of pollution for the world’s poor, leading an astonishing rate of black lung disease in many poor areas where they use wood to keep warm). By the by, Forests are growing about 6 times faster than they are being cut down (including in the “endangered” Amazon), and water pollution is down by about 99% from the 50′s, again, it’s cleaner than it has ever been since Rome.

  • undidly

    If the CO2 escapes from the ground more rapidly than it can disipate then thousands may die
    as happened in Africa when dissolved CO2 bubbled from a lake.
    What is the half life of CO2?.
    Will it ever be safe underground?.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    undidly — Scientists have good reason to think that the CO2 will remain safely underground. Just think about natural gas deposits, where gas has been trapped beneath rocks for millions of years.

    Since the geologic formations that contain oil and gas have been VERY extensively studied by interested parties (i.e. oil & gas companies), scientists have a pretty good understanding of what kinds of rocks can best trap and hold gas.

  • Peter

    Just to add my two cents.

    1) one of the applications of CCS technology is enhanced oil recovery. by pumping it down dead wells it is possible to extract a larger percentage of the oil. I don’t think that this should count as emission reductions.

    2) Pumping carbon into the ground is not a long term solution to the problem of burning fossil fuels. These emission reductions are not comparable to emission reductions through reduced consumption and investment in renewable energy.

    The lake Nyos CO2 explosion released something like 1.5 million tons of CO2, and killed 3000 people and lots of animals. The US annual emissions are over 6000 million tons of CO2. I think it is naive to believe that you can put a significant portion of that amount of CO2 into the ground without causing serious repercussions.

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