The Feasibility and Future of Carbon Capture and Storage Technology

Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) takes CO₂ before it is released into the atmosphere and safely stores it. While it is not today an economically viable technology, wide scale CCS adoption could be just over the horizon.

Despite decades of increasingly clear warnings from scientists and corresponding commitments from governments around the world, more and more heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) including carbon dioxide (CO₂) are released into the atmosphere each year. CO₂ stays in the atmosphere for between 1,000 and 3,000 years. The result? Global temperatures are rising to dangerous and historically high levels. So far, the planet’s atmosphere (and oceans) have already warmed an average o f1.1℃ above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900). 

Experts say that global emissions must be reduced by between one to two billion tons each year to keep global temperature increase below 2℃ relative to pre-industrial levels – a threshold which scientists agree we need to stay below in order to avoid the worst consequences of a climate catastrophe. 

But what if we could remove excess carbon from the atmosphere? Designed to sequester carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) could potentially be a tool to not only lower, but start to turn back the clock on humanity’s historical carbon footprint. In fact, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is made up of the world’s top climate scientists, simply lowering our eliminating our collective GHG emissions will not suffice given the volume of carbon already our atmosphere – carbon removal is now an essential, ‘unavoidable’ mechanism to help achieve global emission targets and reduce atmospheric GHG concentrations. 

CCS involves trapping CO₂ at its emission source via a capture plant, transporting it to a storage location and then isolating it far away from the atmosphere. Currently technology captures around 85-95% of the CO₂ processed in a capture plant. 

There are three main ways to capture carbon: pre-combustion, post-combustion and oxyfuel combustion. With pre-combustion carbon capture, carbon is first trapped and then removed from fossil fuels before the combustion process ends. Post-combustion is used to capture carbon from part of the flue gases from a number of existing power plants – and is the most common form of carbon capture and storage technology. Thirdly with Oxyfuel combustion, a power station burns pure oxygen. This creates flue gas consisting of CO₂ and water. It is then possible to separate the CO₂ by compressing and cooling the water.

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This all sounds pretty cool, right? Well don’t get too excited just yet. The economic viability of carbon capture must be considered before CCS is embraced as a panacea for the climate crisis.

The first carbon capture plant, Sleipner CO2 gas processing and capture unit, began operations in 1996 in Norway.  The Sleipner CCS plant was not by itself a profitable enterprise. Rather, Norway’s carbon emissions tax – which today stands at about USD$235 per tonne – provided an economic incentive for Sleipner to offset emissions from its gas fields. 

Today, carbon capture globally costs in the range of USD$600 per ton of CO₂. The world emits approximately 43.1 billion tons of carbon per year. This translates to around $25.8 trillion to sequester all of the carbon emitted each year.  Adoption of renewable sources of energy has increased at a rapid rate over the last 10 years and is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, growing by 42% from 2010 to 2020. This was due in no small part to increased investment in renewables by the US government. In 2020 alone, US Congress passed a spending bill that allocated USD$35 billion towards renewable energy sources.

Given the economics of carbon capture, it is not currently realistic to implement CCS on a wide scale. But if we look to renewables as an analog, there is reason to be hopeful. Adoption of renewable sources of energy has increased at a rapid clip over the last 10 years and renewable energy has been the fastest-growing energy source in the United States growing by 42% from 2010 to 2020, while costs of solar energy dropped 80% over that same time frame. This was due in no small part to increased investment in renewables by the United States government. In 2020 alone, US Congress passed a spending bill that allocated $35 billion towards renewable energy sources. 

In addition to receiving increased investment, the cost for renewable energy sources such as solar has fallen  80% since 2010. Similarly to how the costs of renewable energy infrastructure have plunged in recent years, we can be hopeful that the costs of carbon capture and storage technology will similarly plummet.  In 2020, the market for CCS technology was valued at around $1.9 billion. The CCS market is predicted to reach $7.0 billion by 2030, which would reflect a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 13.8% from 2021 to 2030.

Climate technology has historically depended on the private sector to bear fruit. While government subsidies certainly helped it, electric car manufacturer Tesla would not have become a trillion dollar company without the ingenuity of entrepreneur Elon Musk and free market incentives. If critics might be tempted to consider these supports as evidence of how renewables or CCS could not survive in the “free market”, recall that the fossil fuel industry was, and continues to be one of the most heavily-subsidised industries on this planet – with global subsidies still ranging between $500B and $1T annually.

To that end, tech billionaire Bill Gates, through his investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures, invested in the carbon capture company Verdox technology. Verdox technology uses a new innovation that uses electrical energy to capture carbon. Today, a number of CCS enterprises are working to lower costs and increase the efficiency of CCS.

On May 11 2022, Carbon Clean, a provider of carbon capture solutions for heavy industries, raised $150 million for its CCS tech. Carbon Clean’s technology aims to be 10 times smaller than conventional point-of-source carbon capture equipment. It also could potentially cut average costs roughly in half, to around $30 per tonne.

In addition to receiving venture capital funding, CCS technology may also be the recipient of voluntary carbon market (VCM) investment via carbon credits, and taxpayer dollars. The voluntary carbon market has traditionally funded sustainable initiatives such as the expansion of renewable energy and forest conservation projects. CCS is becoming another carbon offset option. Canada’s biggest retail company, Shopify, has signed a deal to remove 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

Today, there are only 24 commercial CCS plants worldwide of which 12 are in the US.  We will have to wait and see in the decades to come if carbon capture becomes an economically feasible tool in the fight against climate change and if it will become enmeshed into the fabric of human civilisation.

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