Does Norway’s Dropped CCS Project Spell Doom for Carbon Capture?

Norway once trumpeted its ambitious project to capture carbon dioxide at a large utility plant as a technological achievement on par with a lunar landing, but environmental activists there now dub it a “crash landing.’

“One of the ugliest political crash landings we have ever seen,” Frederic Hauge of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona said about the demise of the project at Mongstad and the nation’s attempt to lead the world in carbon capture.

The Wall Street Journal reported in late September that the Norwegian government was shutting down the Statoil ASA-operated project because it “has been both challenging and costly, and the risks are now seen as too big.”

The proposed facility was supposed to capture carbon emissions from a natural gas plant at the Mongstad site, which also houses an oil refinery, and pipe them into underground storage on the Norwegian continental shelf.

There’s still a research center at Mongstad “testing various carbon capture schemes.”  The center is allocated about $67.4 million over four years, a far cry from the $300 billion-plus that Norway’s auditor general disclosed would be spent on carbon capture and storage projects from 2007 to 2012.

Shuttering the Mongstad project certainly dampens expectations that Norway will fulfill its promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, according to the Reuters news service, which noted that “emissions were five percent above 1990 levels in 2012, and delays to carbon capture will make the 2020 goal ever more difficult.”

The strategy of carbon capture and storage (CCS) entails removing CO2 from coal plant emissions before it goes up the stack and into the air, putting it under high pressure, and then injecting it into the ground where it cannot contribute to global warming.

Norway’s CCS facility would have been the first high-profile project in operation, proving that it could work on an industrial scale. That makes the Mongstad failure even more of a psychological blow to carbon capture devotees.

The International Energy Agency calculates a need for about 1,500 full-scale CCS plants in operation by 2035 “to meet the internationally agreed target of keeping the temperature rise since pre-industrial times below 2C (3.6F),” the BBC reported last year. “Currently, there are just eight.”

So what happened? It’s not like this is a novel procedure — it was patented in the 1930s.

No matter how well and efficiently it’s done, CSS simply makes electricity more expensive because it increases the cost of production. Extra fuel needs to be burned to drive the process of capturing CO2 from the power station’s flue gas, and to pump it underground. During the global recession, investment in CSS seemed imprudent.

In Europe, the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) attaches a price to carbon dioxide emissions. Financially penalizing companies in such a way is “very important because if everyone is walking around thinking that emissions are cost-free, there’s no initiative for doing anything about it,” Ola Borten Moe, Norway’s minister of petroleum and energy, told the BBC last year.

However, increased applications of green technologies and renewable energy in Europe will depress the carbon-emissions penalties set by the ETS and undercut investment in CSS, according to a study by the National Technical University of Athens.

Australia had been an enthusiastic cheerleader for CCS. However, the government quietly cut approximately $500 million in CCS research funding, which Australian political observer Dan Cass wrote in 2011 isn’t surprising in that not one full-scale CCS plant project has ever been built.

So is CCS doomed in America? Its primary value would be to keep the nation’s aging coal-fired power plants running. But should Americans embrace the controversial process of fracking, much coal-fired power will be replaced over the next several years by abundant, clean, and cheap natural gas.

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