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Is Carbon Capture Part of the Problem, or Part of the Solution?

Dec. 5, 2011 - Bruno Berthon - greenbiz.com

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has become one of the controversial topics of discussion among the business community at the side events at the Durban climate change talks.

Many see CCS as part of the solution, but a number of observers and NGOs see it as part of the problem. After all, CCS means the continued development of fossil fuels.

CCS aims to very effectively capture 99 percent of the carbon emitted during an industrial process, whether power generation by utilities or production such as in cement or chemicals. It requires a modest and decreasing energy fee (15 percent to 20 percent) but a higher investment cost.

So is it an evil in disguise, pretending to be clean and diverting investments from establishing fully renewable sources? Or is it a necessary compromise towards the WBCSD Vision 2050 of controlled climate change and managed emissions levels of below 450ppm?

One camp, represented by Greenpeace in Durban, doubts of the validity of certain technologies and resources -- nuclear, CCS, shale gases -- and is convinced that this dilution of efforts is diverting the required investments from the aggressive support for large-scale penetration of renewable energy.

The other camp, the pragmatists, incarnated in Durban by Philippe Joubert, the Deputy CEO of Alstom, is focusing the case on the need for the appropriate portfolio strategy, country by country or sector by sector. He argues that this should balance risks with energy capacity needs and combine solutions that address both the volume challenge in the short to mid-term as well as the emissions reduction one in the longer term.

So on one hand, we have the virtuous example of Germany and the successful political determination to aggressively grow renewable generation. On the other, we are reminded that coal is here to stay: Not only is it the number one fossil fuel source for electricity, but it had the largest share of the increase in electricity generation capacity in 2010. And, of course, it is abundant in both developed and emerging countries. Consequently, cleaning it is a must.

The conclusion of the debate will be made at country level. Not only do local conditions vary enormously, but budget decisions rest with national governments for new technologies. For developing markets like South Africa, where access to energy is a priority in the fight to raise people above the poverty line, the use of the coal will be supported even when there is a program in pace to develop renewables.

For countries like China, where the correlation between economic growth and energy capacity is for the time being extremely high, the only possible choice is to pursue all energy options in parallel. China has the largest hydro-dam, 24 nuclear plants and one new generation plant a week in production – covering coal, gas, wind and solar. The home of the world's leading solar industry is also a country overwhelmingly dependant on coal.

For other countries like the U.S. or Poland, whose existing portfolio remains largely dominated by coal, it is clear that even with limited demand growth, there is no real satisfactory option without coal and/or shale gas. However, for smaller countries that are deprived of fossil resources, like Denmark or many islands around the world, a full renewable strategy seems not only preferred but realistic.

The main consequence of this analysis is that, no matter what the prospects are for CCS or renewable energy in the long term, there should be no surprise that the world's emissions have continued to grow in 2010.