If there was a prize for false starts, dashed hopes and failed promises, the carbon capture and storage industry would be a strong contender.
For more than a decade, it has offered a tantalising solution to a central dilemma of climate change: the need to curb carbon dioxide emissions from the fossil fuel burning energy systems on which most economies depend.
In theory, a CCS system can capture a coal-fired power plant’s carbon pollution before it is belched out into the atmosphere and then pipe it off to be tucked away safely, deep under the ground or sea.
In reality the idea has proved more troublesome.
Its proponents are fond of saying CCS technology has been successfully used for years and, in a sense, this is true. Some of the processes involved in capturing and storing carbon emissions have long been used in industries such as natural gas extraction, which require carbon dioxide to be removed from the final product.
Norway’s Statoil has stored more than 10m tonnes of carbon dioxide captured at its Sleipner fields in the North Sea since 1996, for example, more CO2 than Norway’s cars emit in two years. But this is a long way from a single, integrated, commercial-scale CCS system that could be fitted to a coal-fired power station, like the hundreds of plants that fast-growing economies such as China and India plan to build in coming years.
So far, no such system exists, although there are at least eight on the drawing board, mostly in North America, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The most advanced is generally deemed to be the $1.25bn Boundary Dam system already under construction in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
Backed by $240m in federal government support, it plans to start capturing carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power station by 2014 and pipe it for use in oilfields, where it will be used to enhance the recovery of hard-to-reach oil. The other, in Kemper County, Mississippi, is also due to start in 2014.
Some way behind is Europe’s leading project, the ROAD venture in Rotterdam.
But even if all these ventures come off, the volatile history of the CCS industry suggests its success cannot be assured.
Politicians have been talking about carbon capture and storage since the 1990s and bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change long ago rejected some of the doubts about CCS, such as fears that stored carbon dioxide would eventually leak.
More than 99 per cent of carbon dioxide stored “in appropriately selected and managed geological reservoirs” was “very likely” to stay there for 100 years, the IPCC said in a 2005 report, and “likely” to be there for 1,000 years.
CCS took off with a vengeance in 2008 and 2009, when much of the world appeared to be leaning towards putting a price on carbon dioxide.
The European Union’s emissions trading system was up and running, the US Congress was considering its own cap and trade scheme and the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen looked likely to forge a global treaty requiring countries to cut carbon emissions.
A number of CCS pilot projects were announced in the EU, the US and Australia.
But Copenhagen failed; the US Congress abandoned its carbon pricing plans and the EU emissions trading system suffered record carbon price falls, damping the incentive to invest the billions of dollars needed to develop some of these projects.
One of the most recent CCS casualties occurred in the UK, where the government said it would spend up to £1bn on the winner of a competition it launched in 2007 to find a group to develop the country’s first CCS demonstration project.
The venture collapsed last October, after the contest winner, a consortium led by Scottish Power that planned to build the system at the Longannet power station in Scotland, could not agree funding terms with the government.
UK ministers say they are still committed to spending the £1bn, and at least six remaining UK CCS projects are waiting to see whether they will get any of it. The European Union, meanwhile, is holding a separate competition for another pot of CCS money due to be decided on by the end of the year.
But using competitions to develop a technology as expensive and complex as CCS is “bonkers”, says Lewis Gillies, chief executive of 2Co Energy, whose CCS project in the Don Valley, Yorkshire, is regarded as a leading British carbon capture and storage venture by many analysts.
“What you need is a collaborative approach,” Mr Gillies says. “When you are trying to create a new industry and a new technology, setting companies and countries against each other isn’t right.”
Jeff Chapman, chief executive of the UK’s Carbon Capture & Storage Association, agrees that North America’s approach has proved more productive.
“They made early moves to incentivise certain projects, especially in Canada, where the Alberta provincial government put up $2bn and the Canadian federal government $500m,” he says. “They had a very short beauty parade in 2010, and chose four projects in 11 months. We chose one project and then lost it in four years.”
North America has other advantages, such as regional electricity systems in the US that have allowed revenue to be raised via small increases in consumers’ power bills to pay for CCS projects.
This is what happened in Kemper County, says Mark Taylor, CCS analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, adding it underlines an important aspect of many leading CCS projects.
“The only ones surviving are doing so without the help of government carbon policies that would favour CCS,” he says.
If they succeed, their ability to prove CCS can work might inspire a fresh round of projects. On the other hand, initial costs are likely to stay high and, in the absence of carbon pricing policies, that could still damp global expansion.
“The CCS industry has been dealt its hand,” says Mr Taylor. “Now we just have to wait and see how these projects go.”
Get alerts on Energy sector when a new story is published