Should CCS be Backed or Sidelined?
Yes, CCS is sensible and necessary
Costas Tsouris and Douglas Aaron question whether CCS is really needed to help reduce the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere; suggesting that we may do better to invest the funds it will take to capture and store carbon in the development of renewable energy sources. We argue that, rather than investment in development of renewable energy techniques as an alternative to spending on CCS, the activities are complementary and necessary in the short to medium term (next 50 years) to ease the transition and maintain stability of supply.
Superficially, Tsouris and Aaron’s premise seems reasonable. Why should we do anything that does not make a profit? Fundamentally, burying something in the ground and not using it cannot make a profit whether it be CO2 or gold. Similarly, cleaning polluted rivers is intrinsically not profitable, nor is saving whales or having a state health service. Closer to home, the weekly visit of the dustman does not make a profit. Instead it provides a service at a cost. We pay to have our rubbish cleared away so that it does not accumulate in our neighbour-hood. CCS is the same principle.
Double the impact?
A key piece of Tsouris and Aaron’s argument is that for a given investment we would have twice as much impact on CO2 emissions reduction by investing in wind energy than we would have by installing CCS. In a deft move he has admitted that prices may be volatile but using the best cost estimates today give this 2:1 leverage for wind (nuclear is even better). Balderdash!
This is akin to comparing whale oil and mineral oil prices in the late 19th century. Whale oil was cheaper than mineral oil, meaning mineral oil required an initial fillip from government. But shortly thereafter the industry took off and prices fell dramatically as technology improved and the cost base lowered. The same has happened with computers, mobile phones, 3D seismic acquisition and so on and it will happen with CCS, a highly immature technology when compared with wind power.
Pacala and Socolow demonstrated the scale of the global CO2 emissions in an elegant way, splitting the seemingly unmanageable task of stabilising output of CO2 into seven huge but probably manageable wedges each of which could be tackled with the technology available today. Their key point was that no single technology could deliver all the required reduction of emissions. Since publication of their paper in 2004, CO2 emissions have continued to rise. What was seven wedges in 2004 is now eight wedges in 2010. We are getting further behind. Action is urgently required but what can we do now which will allow business to continue as reliably as usual - increase wind power 40 fold, increase solar power 700 fold while simultaneously reducing dependency on coal by a similar amount and halving the fuel consumption of two billion cars? Of course we must improve the efficiency of our energy consumption as well as further developing solar, wind, wave and other renewable power sources, not to forget significantly reducing deforestation. But will fossil fuels cease to be used in the short or even medium term? No, fossil fuels are just too easy to use. The physical, social and legislative infrastructures are well established. The energy concentration is too dense for an energy hungry world to ignore, even if finding new deposits of light oil (and gas) is getting ever more difficult.
We accept that a sustainable future demands that we switch to renewable energy sources as fast as possible. In the meantime CCS provides a way to minimise emissions of greenhouse gases.