Is carbon capture and storage viable?

RELATED: Carbon capture questions

CARBON capture and storage (CCS) refers to a host of technologies designed to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Using chemical scrubbers, carbon dioxide generated by power plants is captured and processed, eventually being liquefied and piped into storage.

The CarbonNet project, which is still in its assessment phase, would seek to use natural rock formations offshore in Bass Strait to store excess carbon dioxide produced by power stations.

The excess carbon dioxide would be pumped into vast underground wells, such as those emptied by oil and gas extraction.

The rocks, some up to 800 metres deep, are understood to be capped with other rocks strong enough to contain the pressure from the carbon dioxide, and natural processes would eventually bind the carbon dioxide to minerals already present in the rock.

The storage is in rock formations under the water, and not the ocean itself, and would potentially last for centuries with proper monitoring.

The Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, using existing geological data, determined the area off Golden Beach would be well suited for CCS, concluding it was a “world class site”.

However, there are concerns that CCS, as a concept, is too expensive to deploy efficiently, as extracting the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions can be expensive, and new infrastructure and pipelines would be needed to inject the gas into the storage area.

Local residents are also concerned about the affect on the area’s liveability.

Dr Gary Ellem, a sustainability futurist, strategic analyst and policy strategist from the University of Newcastle, has extensively written about CCS.

Discussing community concerns, he said there had to be a clear benefit to the community for people to support a project like CarbonNet.

Dr Ellem said a possible long-term upside, if the correct technology was used, would be the creation of sustainable regional jobs, as well as repairing the climate, but this would also require a commitment to a regional bioenergy target and a carbon negative power station. He noted the disturbances could be long or short term, and included construction of infrastructure like pipelines.

“Construction of this type is relatively routine within the normal operations of the Victorian oil and gas sector and have been effectively managed in the past,” Dr Ellem said.

“Impacts from this type of activity tend to be pulse type (shorter term) disturbances during construction that have minimal ongoing environmental impact, provided no negligence is involved.”

Dr Ellem added that while pumping carbon dioxide into oil extraction wells was a standard practice to recover more oil from a reservoir, there were no other successful CCS-integrated power stations currently working in Australia.

One of the central criticisms of CCS is that it props up existing coal power stations, which are already damaging the environment, and the money used to upgrade the plants could be better spent on renewable energy technology investments.

Dr Ellem said CCS usually requires 1.5 times the amount of coal to be burnt to produce enough energy for separation, compression, and transport, which impacts the economics, but coal in Gippsland was cheap and plentiful.

New and potentially expensive infrastructure would need to be constructed to capture the carbon.

“The key thing is to always consider CCS in the context of the strategic problem we are all trying to solve,” Dr Ellem explained.

“Energy is essential to the maintenance of society and standards of living.

“Most of our existing energy infrastructure is built around centralized coal generation, which has a carbon dioxide emissions problem.

“We strategically want to keep the energy flowing reliably, while fixing the emissions problem and not breaking the bank in the process.

“CCS always sounds attractive in this context because it holds out the promise of just adding some bits to our trusted existing infrastructure for which we have quite a bit of experience. People have built their lives around it.”

Researchers from CO2CRC, which runs a carbon capture and storage facility in the Otways in western Victoria, have proven that carbon dioxide can be “permanently” stored safely underground, with continued monitoring.

The organisation also supports the GipNet monitoring network, studying natural variations within Gippsland’s environment, which may assist future CCS projects to respond to any changes in the environment.

This includes seismographs to monitor subsurface movements.

C02CRC also cites the International Energy Agency in saying CCS is an essential part of a low carbon energy transition strategy.

They claimed the injection of carbon dioxide would not cause “cracks” in the cap rocks, and the cost of installing new infrastructure is falling, now “on par with renewables”.

They concluded CCS was “vital” to Australia’s long term  economic prosperity.

However, Environment Victoria, an independent and not-for-profit organisation, claimed CCS was a waste of money which could be better spent on renewable energy.

Campaign manager Nicholas Aberle said the technology was a “mirage”.

“We keep thinking it’s 10 years in the future and it never seems to get much closer,” he said.

“There’s an enormous amount of unanswered questions about how it’s going to work, and how commercially viable it’s going to be.”

Mr Aberle said installing carbon capture technology on existing power stations would be unfeasible.

“We should be putting our efforts into cutting our emissions we do have,” he said.

“Is it a potential saviour for coal industry? The reality is it won’t be, because existing power stations are not going to pay the money to install this on their generators.”

Gippsland Senior
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