Energy Policies in an Uncertain World


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Problems of this type are not restricted to CCS—they also face selection of new propulsion systems and fuels for transport, for instance. Trade-offs will therefore be necessary with CCS, which could delay its implementation. Transport by pipeline is generally regarded as the least costly method of conveying the CO2 to the storage site. McCoy and Rubin [] have modelled transport costs in detail for the US.

They found that for transport of CO2 in the liquid state, unit costs vary in a roughly linear manner with pipeline length for a given pipe diameter, and for a given pipeline distance, decrease exponentially as the design mass flow rate rises. Technologies for carbon capture and transport will be irrelevant if safe storage capacity is small relative to annual CO2 production.

Very large values have been given for the potential for ocean burial, as the oceans already contain over Gt CO2, compared with less than Gt in the atmosphere [Moriarty and Honnery a]. Deep ocean disposal would attempt to solve one problem by worsening another—ocean acidification. The oceans are presently acidifying because roughly eight Gt CO2 are annually absorbed by the surface waters of the ocean [Solomon et al. If ocean burial was adopted for all emissions, the figure would rise severalfold.

Apart from other stresses on ocean ecosystems, progressive acidification could eventually lead to organisms being unable to form their calcareous skeletons or shells [Laurance ]. Deep ocean disposal is probably also far more expensive than geological disposal, and in any case would not be permanent [Moriarty and Honnery a]. In summary, CO2 disposal in the oceans carries too many risks. Geological sequestration includes burial in disused gas and oil fields, in saline aquifers, and by CO2 adsorbtion on unmineable coal seams. However, the technical potential for geological sequestration is highly uncertain, with global estimates ranging from a low of to a high of , Gt of CO2 [Bradshaw et al.

These values need to be compared with the annual emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere of If the lower estimates for storage capacity turn out to be more realistic, CCS could only ever store less than four years of total emissions, and so would not be seriously attempted. But as Bradshaw et al. One reason is that both to assess capacity and to ensure that the injected CO2 will not soon leak to the surface, each potential underground storage site will need to be very thoroughly surveyed, as it is very difficult to generalise from one site to another [Bachu et al.

A more important uncertainty may be that the ultimate storage capacity of the various geological reservoirs, even if accurately known, may not be very relevant to carbon sequestration as a solution. Equally important is the annual absorbtion capacity of each of these reservoirs. Bradshaw et al. It follows that some promising sites with large ultimate storage potential may be of little value because the safe annual increment of stored CO2 may be too low.

Carbon Sequestration in an Uncertain world 7 Geological sequestration of CO2 faces a number of other obstacles that both further limit its scope and delay the likely time-frame for implementation [Rubin et al. Such exclusion could be important in countries with limited sequestration sites. Also, undersea saline reservoir injection could trigger landslides and so tsunamis [Schiermeier ].

Overall, then, CCS faces several severe difficulties, including great uncertainty in both its realisable storage potential and the permanence of CO2 storage. Retro-fitting of coal power plants is expensive [Kobayashi ], yet neither existing plants, nor the many coal-fired plants presently under construction world-wide are designed for carbon capture. These fossil fuel plants can have lives of 60 years [Socolow and Pacala ], so switching to plants optimised for carbon capture will not be rapid. Nor will future coal plants, unless carbon taxes are high and sustained long-term.

Even for specifically designed plants, there is a large drop in efficiency—and increased CO2 emissions. Since future fossil fuel use will be facing steadily falling net energy output because of increasing energy costs for production, transport and refining [Gagnon ], a further large drop in net energy will have serious consequences, and may be politically difficult to implement. There is also a non-negligible risk of a catastrophic accident if a blow-out occurred in a low-lying populous area, given that CO2 is heavier than air, which ensures that there will be strong local opposition to construction, similar to nuclear energy plants.

Who will be responsible if CO2 leaks? How will we safeguard against cheating? Further problems of governance could arise for storage sites that straddle international borders. Parsons [] thinks that CCS introduces moral hazard into the energy question. CCS is seen as a panacea even though on the huge scale required—billions of tonnes sequestered annually—it still faces the serious technological, legal and public acceptance challenges discussed above.

They point out that CCS may offer temporary relief to the fossil fuel industry, but could also make the world more dependent on fossil fuels, and make the inevitable move away from fossil fuels, with their finite reserves, more difficult. The slow progress on nuclear waste disposal after half a century also suggests that these fears are well-founded.

CCS is a mechanical process, but is presently limited to sequestration of large industrial plant CO2 emissions from a given country, or, by agreement and payment , the captured industrial emissions of other countries. Air capture is different in that it is not tied to the emissions of any given country, or indeed the emissions of any given year.


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The only constraint would be the capacity of the sequestration sites, both cumulative and annual, which as discussed above, is subject to controversy. A further advantage is that air capture plants can be placed almost anywhere, which allows minimisation of transport costs by co-locating the plants and CO2 sequestration sites. Sequestration would proceed in an identical manner to that for CCS, with the same set of challenges. The difficulties may be even greater, since annual sequestration rates may need to be much higher if the promise of air capture delays implementation. One proposed method for directly capturing CO2 from the air involves the use of a sorbent such as sodium hydroxide that selectively captures ambient CO2.

Much energy is required both to regenerate the sorbent and to collect and compress the CO2, and the energy and money costs will probably be much higher than for power plant capture [Keith et al. Baciocchi et al. Even if substantial improvements in efficiency were possible, which Baciocchi et al. Three approaches have been proposed: sequestration in trees and soils; capture from the flue gases of large fossil fuel-using plants, particularly electric power plants, followed by transport and burial; capture directly from the air, with adjacent burial.

Although biological sequestering in soils and biomass is a natural process, and is the cheapest option, the annual potential is small, and biological carbon storage may reverse later in the century and become a sink. CCS is probably limited to about one third of annual fossil- fuel related emissions, and will have high energy and money costs if plants like current ones are not optimised for carbon capture.


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  • There are no limits on air capture, but like CCS, it may be limited by capacity constraints on safe storage reservoirs, particularly if ocean burial is ruled out. More importantly, it may consume all the energy produced by coal-burning power stations, and in any case will be a very high-cost approach.

    The likely time frame for any implementation of carbon sequestration is crucial. If, as many think, it can only be implemented on a large-scale after , it may be too late to be a solution for climate change. If the peak for coal production in addition to oil and gas also occurs before , and air capture proves to be infeasible, then the CO2 potentially available for CCS would in any case diminish with time.

    Coal funds cut. New Scientist 9 February, 6.


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