Elon Musk is nothing if not divisive. But if there’s one thing about the world’s richest man that people tend to agree on, it’s that he’s good at picking winners.
So when the Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and SpaceX founder announced – via tweet, naturally – that he would contribute $100m to the best carbon capture and storage (CCS) invention, people paid attention.
Musk’s seal of approval could be just the thing the technology needs to blast it into the stratosphere (well, look at Gamestop), and according to energy experts, it’s not before time.
Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 21, 2021
Although various methods of removing carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere have grown in popularity in recent years, such solutions still lag behind other climate change technologies like wind and solar power.
Dr. David Joffe, a member of the Climate Change Committee, the government’s chief climate advisers, told City A.M.: “CCS is an essential part of getting to the net-zero target which we’ve recommended, but we haven’t seen the progress over the last 10-15 years that we think we should have.”
But what exactly is CCS, and why is it so important to efforts to prevent climate change?
How does it work?
Really, CCS refers to a process rather than a particular technology – it’s what trees do as part of their life cycle.
But with the newfound attention on reducing carbon emissions, humans have come up with ways to imitate this process.
At the moment, there are three main “bundles” of CCS solutions, as Aniruddha Sharma, chief executive of Carbon Clean explains.
The first of these, and most common, is post-combustion, which uses chemicals to trap the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.
Then there is pre-combustion, which sees the fuel turned into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon is reacted with water to make carbon dioxide, which is then trapped.
Finally, “oxyfuel” carbon capture involves burning the fuel in pure oxygen. Doing this produces carbon dioxide and water vapor, or which the former is then trapped and piped away.
But why do we need all these methods? It’s a case of horses for courses, says Sharma, whose company operates 40 CCS projects across Europe and India. “Different situations need different solutions. If you’re running a coal power plant, for example, post-combustion chemical capture is best, because the emissions are so dirty.”
What’s the need?
But with more and more renewable energy sources being brought online every year, some have questioned the need for the technology.
According to Joffe, there are two main reasons why CCS is so important. First, as he explains, renewable energy sources are currently extremely variable, meaning that if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, no power is produced.
Although the CCC estimates that by 2050 80 percent of the UK’s power will be run off renewables, something will still be needed to fill the gap – like a gas power plant with CCS technology attached.
Secondly, there are some industries where experts think that it won’t be possible to remove emissions altogether – like the making of cement, for example, which creates carbon dioxide even though it doesn’t involve the use of fossil fuels.
“These kind of solutions are just for the margins, where without them we cannot make progress in decarbonisation”, Joffe said
“There are areas such as agriculture or aviation where realistically we are not going to get to net-zero so we have to balance those negative emissions with removals from the atmosphere”, he said.
“Some of those can be land-based, like growing trees, but there’s a limit to our land base, so some will require other human CCS solutions.”
Where have we got to so far?
Given the rapid growth in renewables over the last decade, it may come as a surprise that CCS development is currently lagging behind booming industries such as wind power.
As usual, the reason for the lack of progress comes down to money, says Joffe.
“CCS is never going to be cheaper than not doing it. If you add it to a fossil fuel power plant you have to add equipment, build infrastructure and supply energy, and that all adds to cost. It’s not like wind power or electric cars, where you replace the fuel source altogether.
“The climate polity hasn’t taken those options seriously which just tackle climate change. Tackling technologies which make fossil fuels more expensive has not been done nearly as well”, he added.
After a false start in the middle of the 2010s, the technology now seems to be firmly back on the government’s radar, however.
In December’s energy white paper, ministers increased their investment into CCS from £800m to £1bn over the next five years, with plans to deploy the technology across four industrial clusters by the end of the decade.
It is hoped that the fledgling industry could employ as many as 50,000 people within the same timeframe.
Crucially, this time around the government has separated funding for the technology from funding for infrastructure, which should help avoid the disappointment of previous competitions for investing in the technology, as Sharma explains.
“Back in 2014, the funding competition didn’t work and that had an impact on the investors and their willingness to deploy capital. So if we can avoid that this time goes full throttle all the way to the end it would be great.”
Environmental concerns ‘overblown’
Both Joffe and Sharma also have short shrift for the environmental arguments cited as reasons not to be hasty for deploying the technology.
Some argue that the impact of storing carbon dioxide is not yet fully known, but Joffe disagrees:
“On the whole those concerns are overblown. If we believe that 99 percent of carbon we store underground will remain trapped there for 200 years, the extra benefit is going to be hundreds of times bigger than if one percent escapes”, he said.
And Sharma pointed out that Norwegian oil giant Equinor has been storing 1m tonnes of carbon dioxide under the North Sea for decades without any recorded impact.
Then there is the question of the energy required to capture the carbon dioxide in the first place, which some argue renders the technology futile.
Again, Sharma disputes this logic. “Let’s say if you are trying to capture 95kg of CO2 out of 100kg that’s going out. The carbon emissions of the energy required to capture that would range anywhere between 10kg to 15kg, so you are still catching over 80 percent of the emissions overall.”
Both agree that without the technology, the attempt to transition to a net-zero economy will be much more difficult.
As Sharma says: “I see CCS as a bridge between now and when 100 percent of the industry can run on renewables. But for that, we’ll need new ways of making steel, cement, and chemicals. So right now we need that bridge.”
By City AM