Comment: It’s time to get serious about carbon capture and storage

This proven technology can cut carbon dioxide emissions from industrial and power generation sources in Ireland

COP26 brought worldwide attention once again to what action needs to take to address global warming. The IPCC published their latest report in August and stated that greenhouse gas emissions linked to human activities have been the primary driver for global warming over the past century. They also concluded that achieving net-zero carbon emissions is required to stabilise the global temperature.

So what actions can be taken to address this issue? Some are obvious. Increasing energy efficiency and being less wasteful. Increasing the amount of renewable energy generation and usage. Enhancing natural “sinks” for carbon such as reforestation, or re-wetting our boglands in the case of Ireland. Some are controversial. There is little or no appetite in Ireland for the option of domestic nuclear power generation.

In the mantra of “ending fossil fuels” – something future generations would have had to deal with anyway irrespective of climate concerns – there is often little room for nuance and a balanced discussion around transition. And yet much of the discussion at COP26 lay in this space. How can countries transition from A to B in a structured manner without risking blackouts and soaring energy prices?

The carbon footprint of different fossil fuels – coal, oil, gas – varies significantly and the recent focus at COP26 has been on timelines to phase out coal usage. Natural gas, and particularly domestic natural gas that requires less transportation, tends to have the lowest carbon intensity of all the fossil fuels. Hence why natural gas is widely viewed as being a transition fuel. To some it is an inconvenient truth that there is still a role for natural gas as we transition away from our current dependency on fossil fuels.

Ireland’s dilemma

According to the SEAI, 59 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland in 2018 were derived from the combustion of fossil fuels for energy. To tackle emissions linked to transport and heat, Ireland’s Climate Action Plan proposes, among other things, to have 950,000 electric vehicles in use by 2030 and to install electrical heat pumps in 400,000 existing homes. These actions require additional electricity, the third category of energy-related emissions.

Natural gas generated 52 per cent of Ireland’s electricity in 2018 with a further 14 per cent from coal and peat. Ireland’s gas supply currently comes from domestic production at the Corrib field and via pipeline imports from the UK. Ireland will become completely dependent on imports from the UK by 2030 in the absence of any new domestic gas discoveries, unlikely given the ban on new licences for petroleum exploration, and in the absence of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) import facility. This is particularly critical because Ireland is at the end of the European gas transmission system and effectively disconnected from the rest of the EU post-Brexit. The ongoing gas crisis in Europe is a timely reminder of our vulnerability.

The Climate Action Plan proposes to increase the renewable contribution to electricity supply to 80 per cent by 2030 and to phase-out peat and coal completely. However, EirGrid recently raised concerns about a potential shortfall in electricity supply over the next five winters, leading to discussions about a delay in the planned closure of some coal- and oil-fired power stations. This has culminated in the government announcement in late November that up to seven new gas-fired power plants may be required to bridge the gap to renewables. While this does not fit the black-and-white narrative of “ending fossil fuels”, as we have seen from the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, complex problems cannot often be solved with simple solutions.

Energy transition

Is the continued use of natural gas during a period of transition away from fossil fuels a problem for climate action? Not necessarily. The underlying problem that needs to be tackled is the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a well-established technology, dating back to 1996 at the Sleipner project offshore Norway, that involves the capture of 90-98 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions produced from point source emitters, followed by transport to long-term underground geological storage.

Despite the potential, a major scaling up of CCS activity has been slow in the past due to high costs and the inability to commercialise carbon capture. However, interest in CCS as a mitigation option has been steadily growing across Europe this year driven in part by strengthening climate commitments, an improved investment environment and increased government support.

Earlier this year, the Dutch Government announced a grant of €2.1 billion in subsidies to the Porthos CCS project. Ahead of COP26, the UK government selected two high-graded CCS sites that may qualify for financial support from a new £1 billion carbon capture fund. And just this week, the Danish government agreed to provide €2.2 billion in subsidies towards CCS projects over the coming decade. The price of tradable EU carbon permits has also increased significantly from €30/tonne to €80/tonne over the course of the past year and Equinor, a global leader in the deployment of CCS and partner in the Northern Lights project in Norway, have recently stated that CCS services for large industrial emitters may soon approach break-even at around €100/tonne.

Ireland’s Climate Action Plan noted that the deployment of CCS in the industrial sector – such as cement – is one option that could be utilised to achieve our 2030 targets. However, the Irish government has yet to transpose the European Commission’s CCS Directive that outlines a legal framework for the environmentally safe storage of carbon dioxide in geological sites. Ireland has significant potential to store carbon dioxide in offshore geological formations, including the possible re-use of depleted offshore natural gas fields.

In short, CCS is a proven technology that could be implemented to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from industrial and power generation sources in Ireland. Combining CCS with gas-fired power plants can provide secure and reliable low-emissions electricity to back-up intermittent generation from renewables, and also help to resolve the apparent conflict between climate action and the continued use of natural gas during the energy transition.

Kara English is an assistant professor at the School of Earth Science, University College Dublin

Joseph English is an adjunct professor at the School of Earth Sciences, University College Dublin