By Tirthankar Mukherjee
The September issue of this publication contained a very informative article (‘Mega China-Mongolia coal project waits for final feasibility study’ by B.Tugsbilegt) but I am not sure how many readers knew how close we were to the inauguration of the world’s very first commercial-scale plant equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, an innovative breakthrough about which the article spoke in relation to the proposed Sinopec-Hopu-Mongolia joint venture coal gasification plants in Tuv and Dundgovi aimags.
The Boundary Dam project is in Canada and when it was switched on, it was held up as proof that coal-burning is compatible with cutting emissions. Champions of the technology assert that its large-scale use in coal-fired power plants will enable the burning of fossil fuels without tipping the world into a climate catastrophe.
Apart from Boundary Dam, there are 13 large-scale CCS projects operating globally, and an additional nine under construction, representing a 50% increase since 2011. In Australia, CCS projects have successfully sequestered 65,000 t of CO2 in a depleted gas field in Victoria’s Otway basin and captured CO2 at a coal-fired power plant at Callide in Queensland’s Bowen basin.
No wonder that the inauguration of Boundary Dam, a $1.3-billion and 110-megawatt project, was big news, for both those who took it as a real life example that it is possible to go on burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels while avoiding dangerous global warming, and also those who discounted the hype as just clever PR. Someone with my limited competence and ambivalent discernment has perforce to sit on the fence.
The enthusiasm of the pro-CCS group comes from the new plant’s promise to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 90% by trapping C02 underground before the gas reaches the atmosphere – making its opening a milestone in the coal industry’s efforts to remain viable in a low-carbon economy. Looked another way, the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1 million tons a year, or the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off the road. The CO2 thus captured will be pumped underground and sold to an oil company for use in priming nearby oil fields, or buried in geological formations.
They have, however, been cautious not to go overboard, and remain tactfully noncommittal about claiming that the CCS technology deployed here would or could soon be replicated on a large scale. For the record, no big US coal company has embraced the technology.
On their part, environmental campaigners view CCS with deep suspicion because its success depends on using the CO2 to increase oil production, and also because it is more expensive than renewable sources of energy. The technology of carbon capture and storage has been around for years but projects combining power generation and CCS have faced long delays and cost overruns, and run into criticism for receiving government subsidies. A number have been scuttled altogether because of competition from historically low prices for natural gas.
Boundary Dam, which received some C$240 million in subsidies, claims its cost over-runs had nothing to do with the CCS technology, but related to construction issues involved in overhauling a 50-year-old power plant. Officials have also said they are confident they could bring in the next such CCS project 25% cheaper. But they do acknowledge that at this point the viability of the technology depends on having a nearby source of coal and an additional revenue stream from the enhanced oil recovery. The coal is not a problem in Mongolia but we have to wait to discover what the ongoing feasibility study will have to say about selling the captured CO2.
Several doubts and questions cropped up as I thought of the possible economic and ecological cost to the planned Mongolian plants if CCS fails to live up to the claims made for it. Since they are all imperfectly and inadequately felt and expressed, I am not trying to impose any order on them, but just setting them down as they occur to me. Some of them could be – and most probably are – fanciful, if not downright silly, and good intentions are their only extenuation.
How will the millions of tonnes of fly ash be disposed of? The CO2 will most likely be stored underground, but will an earthquake then cause it to leak into the atmosphere? (My guess is that we are safe on this count, as such unintended release would require tectonic action over millions of years.) I am also not sure how no part of the greenhouse gas emissions will be actually released freely, not even when they are used to extract oil for burning. In any case, burning coal to help extract oil does not seem a very comforting idea.
Of more concern, as expressed in the MMJ article, is that even if CCS “works”, what would be the price? And could it work in all power stations? If it remains too expensive, should we not try harder to switch to clean/alternative energy? The claims carry more than a whiff of suspicion mostly because they sound too good and glib.
The Canadian project is meant to produce 110 mw of power, which must be a fraction of the equivalent output planned at the Mongolian plants, and I hope the feasibility study will make clear how technical and cost data for a smallish industrial scale plant in a certain place and under certain conditions will have safe and viable application elsewhere.
Economics is not the only concern, as there is sure to be political and social resistance from communities on the way of the pipeline transporting the CO2 to underground disposal sites far from the plant, in case the area around it is not deemed suitable for such storage.
Will the carbon be captured post-combustion or pre-? And can carbon be captured without touching the oxygen, something that I think only a tree can do.
I end with words with which Prof Stuart Haszeldine, director of Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage, has greeted the opening of Boundary Dam: “It is working proof for naysayers, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that full-scale CCS on power generation now exists and works commercially to deliver electricity, with no subsidy.” He has also claimed the plant’s opening would “create ripples worldwide”.
Why does he bring in naysayers? No one has said that decarbonising emissions is not possible. We just have to be sure that the technology is indeed safe and gives value for money. The plant did receive a quarter of a billion dollars in subsidies, CCS does cost more than renewables, the emissions will be used to pump oil, and long-term sequestration is as yet unproven and risky. And then there is this problem with disposal. Using the painstakingly captured CO2 for oil which is then burned without CCS somewhat defeats the ostensible purpose.
CCS is not unlike nuclear in that it looks reasonable enough on paper, as in the September article, until you add up the cost and headaches and compare them with renewable energy. Unless it leaks out before that, unless there are no 100% guaranteed rock formations that can hold it, near the coal, away from seismic action, underground water sources, and the oil it then helps source is not creating more pollution, and we can trust the companies profiting from this to be honest, the upcoming mega plants would seem all right, but are they?