Andrew Smallbone: carbon capture allows to decarbonise infrastructure quickly without rebuilding it again
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To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, carbon capture and sequestration technologies need to be introduced as soon as possible, says Andrew Smallbone, director of decarbonisation for heat and cooling at the Net-Zero research network. He said this during an interview with Global Energy on the release of the association's new report "10 breakthrough ideas in energy for the next 10 years".

Sophia Morgan: I welcome the online audience of the Global Energy Association. We continue to discuss a new report “10 Breakthrough Ideas for the Next 10 Years” with the authors. Our guest today is Andrew Smallbone, Associate Professor in Durham University and the Director of EPSRC Network on the Decarbonisation of Heating and Cooling. Hello sir, nice to see you!

Andrew Smallbone: Hello, nice to see you.

Sophia Morgan: Carbon capture and storage we are going to discuss today has a big role in potential strategies to limit the global warming and to mitigate the effects of the climate change. But is it possible to achieve decarbonisation and the implementation of Paris Agreement without the CCS programme?

Andrew Smallbone: Well, it’s an interesting question. I guess, the short answer to this is quite simple. If society wants to implement the Paris Agreement, then it needs to roll out the carbon capture and storage very quickly. Analysis shows that future energy systems which don’t include CCS are far more expensive and much less resilient. The Paris Agreement sets an agenda, which points towards very-very deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. The agenda tears up any plans for using cheap fossil fuels and emitting the carbon dioxide. So it’s now time to think beyond this paradigm. The future is that we’re all hooked on the value of fossil fuels, hooked on the low cost, its availability, its scale, its ability to store energy, and its flexibility. Our industrial and national infrastructure is shaped to use it, so this means jobs, it means businesses, it means interconnected supply chains, trade, and everything else which provides security and confidence to our communities. In practice, we need to retain all of this but without the carbon dioxide emissions. So carbon capture and storage allows us to decarbonise quickly, allows us to retrofit our existing power, industrial manufacturing infrastructure without rebuilding it again. It will help us to build the renewable energy technologies we will need to deliver on our net-zero targets. It will enable us to do all of this, but without the carbon dioxide emissions bill it would come otherwise. 

Sophia Morgan: If carbon capture is so powerful, why isn’t it everywhere?

Andrew Smallbone: Well, it’s a good question. I mean, basically it’s major infrastructure, so it takes a long time and has a large capital cost to install. The technology itself is quite mature. The principles are being demonstrated now across the world at scale and we’ve all seen from these activities that it’s quite viable. The next stage really is a major capital investment required in the infrastructure in the pipelines, in storage sites, and on the plot itself. This comes with the additional energy cost and also a commitment to ongoing maintenance, which will continue over a decade. The challenge will always be that capturing carbon dioxide will always cost more than venting to atmosphere. A difficult decision now needs to be made: pay for this now, pay for this infrastructure now or postpone all until the next national budget or investment round. But I think the choice to delay it now reached its end. What’s changed really since the net-zero announcement is there is no longer any space for special treatment of particular sectors or businesses. The business as usual is over. However, in infrastructural development terms, a 2050 time scale is effectively tomorrow. So what most of now woken up to the idea that it might be technically difficult to or expensive to be compatible with this future but carbon capture is your most viable pathway. As a result, interest in investments is now starting to move towards deployment rather than demonstration. 

Sophia Morgan: Yes, I agree that from the prospects of this technology associated from the reduction, it needs cost which is now quite, let’s say, not cheap. But what is expected to be improved here in the technology? How it is affected in the moment, at the present time? 

Andrew Smallbone: Yes, so currently is you go and look at the carbon capture’s system that’s in demonstration, maybe a system that’s looking to scale up, they are pretty effective. They are normally capturing 85 to 90 percent of the carbon dioxide. And this will certainly good enough to get the infrastructure in place and get the technology scaled up. Obviously, this scale up will bring down the cost as we learn more about deploying these systems, but it will also encourage investment into what kind of turned really a second generation capture technologies or new build industrial plants or processes. And in these cases it means going beyond retrofit plants, but to integrate carbon capture or even carbon utilisation into the common industrial processes and their supply chains.

Sophia Morgan: After the carbon is captured, it is buried under the ground. What are the main perspective storage sites? What makes a good site or what makes it a bad site? 

Andrew Smallbone: Holistically, we need to decarbonise society as a whole, so carbon capture is not necessarily something we would aim to install everywhere and it wouldn’t go to every, you know, we wouldn’t replace every current fossil fuel technology across the world with a version of that with carbon capture on the end. There are cheaper solutions out there for many-many sectors. However, carbon capture fitted into natural gas to hydrogen plants. So using that hydrogen as a fuel or a feedstock of high-grade heat, or integrating carbon capture for heavy industries like steel or cement or the chemical sectors, it does in this context represent a cheap and least invasive solution. The good thing about many of these sites is that they’re embedded into industrial process clusters and have developed close to ports and abundant gas supplies. So in the case of the UK, our major industrial emission sites are actually carefully and fortunately co-located next to convenient areas, which have got geological CO2 storage capacity. So these kinds of sites are excellent places to start because everyone is already there. So with further development of pipeline infrastructure this means that could be a potential for maintaining the existing industrial base, all the scales and all of the employment are already there for storing the CO2 into the long term. 

Sophia Morgan: Thank you. You mentioned cheaper solutions for the fossil industry, like what?

Andrew Smallbone: So, I guess yeah, we are moving really from the demonstration phase into the deployment stage, so this brings huge benefits on cost as we move along the experience curves, we’ve seen this right across renewable energy technology sectors. As we scale everything up, when we learn more about it, the cost comes down. The secondary benefit is that we will start to see a new generation of carbon capture compatible industrial and power plants, which also serve to reduce cost whilst complementing the wider energy systems. I think the key thing to think about really here is that to date, almost all the environmental interventions that come forward and have reached scales like PV, switching to wind or changing to LED light bulbs have also come with other benefits over and above the carbon dioxide question. So these obviously can be cost, they could be improved technical performance, but they can also yield local air quality improvements. What’s a bit different and fundamentally about carbon capture is that it’s delivering exactly the same product but without the vast majority of the carbon dioxide. It’s a cost not to emit the CO2 so a cost we must pay now for future generations and someone has to be willing for this to pay for this. Carbon taxes is obviously one model and there are various kinds of economic models that kind of similar to that. But also product selection from ethically minded consumers may also be another which may drive this transition. Nevertheless, there is a real growing realisation that net-zero targets are bringing forward lots of solutions, however those solutions which include large scale carbon capture are cheaper and quicker to implement. 

Sophia Morgan: How do we use this trapped gas or how can we use it?

Andrew Smallbone: So, one example that I talk about in the article is an opportunity to take CO2 and turn that into other commodity products. The one example I give in the paper is to turn it into a version of a plastic. So we are looking into replacing PET plastic with the PEF plastic and that process as part of the process, it actually takes CO2 and absorbs CO2 into the plastic as is manufactured. That gives us a great opportunity to then utilise what is normally a waste product and turn it into something of a higher value.

Sophia Morgan: OK, we won’t open all the secrets to our subscribers because we will present our report soon and we will need to hide some … in it. Thank you very much for this short interview. See you next time.

Andrew Smallbone: Thank you very much, thank you. 


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May 2021