Carbon Polluters Fund XPrize to Repurpose Their Emissions

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Unique plant in San Antonio converts CO2 to minerals and chemicals. Photo: Skyonic

XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition’s $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy. Continue reading

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Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?

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Water recovery concept for CCS at GreenGen. Source: LLNL

In an intriguing footnote to their historic climate deal this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama called for demonstration of a hitherto obscure tweak to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that could simultaneously increase its carbon storage capacity and reduce its thirst for water. Such an upgrade to CCS holds obvious attraction for China, which is the world’s top carbon polluter and also faces severe water deficits, especially in the coal-rich north and west.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it in its The Equation blog, “Cracking this nut … could be a huge issue for China.” Continue reading

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading

Local Qualms Kill Ohio CCS Effort

Columbus-based sci-tech research group Battelle is pulling out of a $92.8 million project to test carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Ohio — one of seven regional sequestration tests underpinning the U.S. Department of Energy’s program to kick the wheels on CCS. A Battelle spokeswoman cited “business considerations” in a terse statement on Friday announcing the decision, but Ohio newspapers highlighted local fears that injecting CO2 underground would spark seismic tremors, disrupt underground water supplies, and depress property values.

The setback offers further evidence of the strong Not Under My Back Yard backlash elicited by CCS proposals. Earlier this month Energywise reported that similar concerns are blocking European power giant Vattenfall’s plan to sequester CO2 from its innovative oxyfuel coal-fired power plant in Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. Burial of the CO2 is on hold until at least next spring. Continue reading

Schwarze Pumpe Hits a Bump

Vattenfall's oxyfuel pilot plantLocal concerns about the safety of carbon sequestration are blocking European power giant Vattenfall’s plan to close the loop on greenhouse gas emissions from its coal-fired carbon capture and storage (CCS) pilot plant in Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. The ‘oxyfuel’ plant has been burning coal in pure oxygen since starting up last fall, making its CO2 exhaust easy to capture. But burial of the CO2, set to begin this spring, is now on hold according to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. Staffan Gortz, Vattenfall’s CCS spokesperson, told the paper that, “people are very, very skeptical.” Continue reading

Europe Shortlists Capture Projects for Stimulus

European leaders shortlisted a dozen proposals to demonstrate large-scale carbon capture and storage at coal-fired power plants last month as eligible to share €900 million of the EU’s €5-billion stimulus funding package. The goal is to bring down the cost of carbon-neutral coal power — which the European Commission expects to continue to exceed the cost of conventional coal power in 2020 — and to gain more experience with underground storage of CO2.

Seven propose to capture CO2 post-combustion from the exhaust of conventional coal-fired power plants, a relatively inefficient process that nonetheless costs less up front — an attractive feature given today’s financial mess. Three are Integrated Combined Cycle Gasification or IGCC power plants that would pull CO2 out of coal-derived gases prior to combustion, akin to the U.S. FutureGen project that Bush killed and Obama may be reviving. Two more would concentrate their CO2 exhaust by burning coal in purified oxygen — the oxyfuel approach that Sweden’s Vattenfall is testing at a pilot plant in Germany.

Continue reading

The Sahara Reveals its Carbon Capture Success

The market’s blasé reaction to the oil production cut ordered by OPEC ministers meeting in Algeria this week–bad news for greentech investors–topped the Wall Street Journal’s green business blog this week. The more lasting news from the meeting, however, may be the conference sideshow that took journalists to one of the world’s largest carbon capture and storage operations: Algeria’s In Salah natural gas operation, which stores about 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, 1.2 miles below ground.

In Salah, hidden deep in the Sahara desert some 700 miles south of Algiers, is operated by oil and gas giant BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Algerian state oil and gas firm Sonatrach. The field’s gas is about 7% CO2, which must be cut to 2% or less before it can be shipped on to European markets. In Salah cuts the CO2 to 0.3% and, instead of simply venting the removed CO2 as many gas operations do, pumps it into an aquifer below the gas reservoir. Given the scale of the gas flow, it’s the environmental equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road.

The reporters visiting In Salah this week reported that the CO2 seems to be staying put, as is the case with the other two large-scale CCS operations in operation — the natural gas-stripping operation at Statoil’s Sleipner field in the North Sea, and the Dakota Gasification coal-to-synthetic natural gas operation. The Associated Press quoted Mohamed Keddan, the station manager, expressing confidence that the layer of thick shale sealing the In Salah reservoir would hold the CO2 for good: “If it contained gas for millions of years without leakage, why would it start leaking now?” said Keddan, according to the AP.

Better still, the cost of storing the CO2 is relatively low. Business Week reported that the $100 million CCS operation was just 2.5% of the overall $4 billion cost of the In Salah gas production complex. That puts the cost of sequestering the CO2 at about $14/ton.

At that price BP, Statoil and Sonatrach could eventually make money on the stored CO2 by selling carbon credits earned at In Salah to other polluters, such as coal-fired utilities, facing steeper CCS costs. That is, if future treaties governing greenhouse gas emissions enable CCS operations in developing countries such as Algeria to earn carbon credits — a concept rejected for the time being by international climate negotiators meeting in Poland last week — which could be revived by the time a follow-on to the Kyoto protocol is to be hammered out in Copenhagen twelve months from now.

So, given its success and low cost, why do we hear so little about In Salah, whereas the Dakota Gasification and Sleipner CCS operations enjoy pinup status? Business Week’s correspondent may have hit on the answer, noting that about 2,000 people work at In Salah if one includes the “military units intended to deter attacks by Islamic militants, who are still a serious threat in Algeria.”

Sometimes, and some places, it pays to keep your head down.

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies