An astonishing proportion of Australia’s research budget goes on carbon capture and storage (CCS). While it’s generally better for researchers to worry about enlarging the total pie for research funding, through campaigns such as Discoveries Need Dollars, than to squabble about how it is cut up, CCS looks like a pretty obvious target. The Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute was launched with funds of $100 million a year – almost unimaginable for any other scientific research project, and that’s only one of many ways federal funding is channelled into the field.
Now some of the research funded from this pool has other uses. Some very impressive work has come out recently on separating different gasses. While much of the impetus for this come from the need to collect carbon dioxide from the oxygen and nitrogen released in a coal or gas-fired powerstation, it’s applicable in other cases, and some of the potential applications are very exciting.
Nevertheless, if CCS is a dud, we should abolish it’s funding. There would be more than enough to fund these worthy research lines, with plenty left over for unrelated research. And a dud CCS certainly is.
For quite a while my argument on CCS ran like this: It’s no use in the short term, as even the proponents don’t think it will be in large scale use before 2020. It’s also no use in the long term, since eventually renewables will leave it for dead. It might be some use in the medium term, but should we really be investing so much more in something that is only going to be applicable over a relative short window than we are on solar, wind etc?
Now however, it’s become clear to me that CCS won’t even have a role in the medium term. Here’s why.
Coal currently has two major advantages over renewables as a source of energy. Firstly the actual cost of production is lower. This isn’t true everywhere – it’s now cheaper to produce electricity from sunlight in Hawaii than from fossil fuels, given the geologically recent islands have plenty of sun, but need to import their oil and gas from a long way away. Nevertheless, in most places coal or gas are quite a bit cheaper than renewables.
Secondly, there is the problem of intermittency. Some form of storage or back-up is needed for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
The claim of CCS has always been that, while it won’t be cheap, it will be cheaper than dealing with these two problems. To see why that won’t work lets split CCS into the capture and storage components.
Despite all the progress in gas separation, getting the carbon dioxide out of waste plumes and concentrating it for transportation is never going to come cheap. At a best case scenario it will raise the wholesale cost of electricity for coal-fired power stations by 25%, almost certainly much more initially.
Moreover, as noted above, it’s going to take years to get there. 2020 is an ambitious date for the technology to be ready for commercialisation, given the work that has to be gone through with testing prototypes etc.
Meanwhile, renewables are getting cheaper. The price of solar modules has been falling by more than 10% a year for the last three years. It may not keep going like that until 2020, but substantial further falls are clearly in the pipeline. Wind is becoming cheaper more slowly, but it’s a lot closer to coal already. Solar thermal is in between and then there are dark horses wave power and hot dry rocks. The chances that there won’t be some widely available form or renewable energy of a similar or cheaper price to coal plus carbon capture in 2020 are almost zero. What is more, no one will want to build a CCS plant that will be uneconomic in a few years time, so even a slim advantage for coal (or gas) plus capture won’t be enough.
Ah, but the supporters say, there is still the intermittency problem. Solar and wind, they assure us, can’t provide baseload power, so coal still has a future. But look at it this way: Either with renewables or with emissions-free fossil fuels you have to do storage. The difference is that for renewables you have to store charge for a few hours or days. Maybe a few weeks if there is a period of low wind in winter. If something goes wrong you have blackouts. For CCS however, you have to store billions of tonnes of gas for thousands of years. If something goes wrong, not only do you get runaway climate change, but people will die immediately.
Seriously. Can anyone argue it wouldn’t be cheaper to line up millions of car batteries and store our power in that for a few days, than to try to keep watch on vast reserves of gas; effectively forever?
Fortunately however, we won’t need to use car batteries. Other forms of storage are already available in some circumstances. Moreover, we’re starting to see commercialisation of vanadium redox flow batteries. These are a storage system highly suited to wind and solar, which can be rolled out anywhere. They’ve got quite a few advantages over existing batteries. Amongst other things they’re infinitely scalable, can store energy forever without losing power, and don’t suffer from electrolytes mixing. As a side note, here’s a funny clip of Obama talking about them.
I interviewed their inventor, Maria Skyllas-Kazacos, this week. She noted that while people are chasing (and in some cases claiming) dramatic breakthroughs in vanadium battery technology, they don’t need to rely on such things for improvement. Current production of these batteries is still very labor intensive and inefficient. As market size increases this will change, even if the technology itself doesn’t, and costs will fall dramatically.
There’s simply no way CCS can compete, yet the Australian government is probably putting a hundred times as much money into it* as into developing vanadium storage – an Aussie invention.
* A comparison of the public profiles is also interesting. I posted on facebook that I would be interviewing someone who has been described as “the woman who could save the world” and challenged friends to guess who she was. No one suggested Skyllas-Kazacos, but two people suggested Deanna D’Alessandro for her work on carbon capture.