Capturing Carbon

I have just returned from the British Science Festival which was its usual mix of thought-provoking talks and inspiring people, all of whom were united by their determination to answer some of society’s most pressing questions. One question raised was how to reduce carbon emissions in the face of continued dependency on fossil fuels? The International Energy Alliance (IEA) estimates that by 2050 our energy demands will have doubled, but renewable energy sources will only meet approximately 30 percent of that demand. How can we bridge this gap and still hit our emissions targets?

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One solution is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is a process for capturing carbon dioxide at its source and storing it underground. As Prof Myles Allen exclaimed during a session on CCS at the Festival: “It’s fantastical to think that we’ll leave it [coal] underground just because a UN panel told us to.” So if we’re going to continue to burn fossil fuels, could CCS be the silver bullet that we’re looking for? In short, no. However, what CCS does give us is some breathing room to develop the renewables market, and the technology to effectively store electricity.

There are currently two flagship CCS projects in development in the UK. The first is in Peterhead in North East Scotland, where Shell is planning to retrofit CCS technology to an existing gas-burning power plant with the aim of capturing 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted. If the project completes, it will be the first gas CCS plant in the world. The second project, White Rose, is developing a coal-fired power plant with CCS technology at the Drax Power Station in Selby, North Yorkshire. Both projects have been named as preferred bidders of the Government’s CCS Commericialisation Competition, competing for the final slice of £1 billion of capital funding. The results of the competition are expected to be announced at the end of 2015.

A strong argument for developing CCS in the UK is that we have a plentiful supply of potential storage sites for carbon beneath the North Sea and the East Irish Sea. Some industry experts believe these sites could be made commercially available to the rest of Europe. A clear benefit of underwater storage is that it also negates any public anxiety associated with storing the gas beneath the ground, so there’s currently little opposition to the technology. However, a recent survey by Cambridge University showed that 42% of people have never heard of CCS. Perhaps a lack of awareness explains the lack of placards.

Whatever the reason, Peterhead and White Rose have the potential to impact everything from the local jobs market to traffic during the school run; involving and listening to the people directly affected by these projects is clearly essential to their success. As it stands, the local communities seem to be on board and it’s hard to see the projects not going ahead. You could argue that CCS does not tackle the source of the problem. But what it could do is provide a useful interim solution to help curb our emissions, buying vital time for scientists striving to develop fully reliant, renewable energy.

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