Carbon capture 'viable with long-term support'

Capturing and burying the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from power stations is viable - but long-term government support will be needed, a report says.

Specialists in technology and economics spent two years researching the issue for the UK Energy Research Council.

The government recently announced a £1bn fund to help carbon capture and storage (CCS) develop; but the report says wider support is needed.

CCS is widely seen as an important part of a low-carbon electricity system.

"CCS is seen as the key to many scenarios of how to mitigate climate change, whether that's the UK meeting its targets on cutting emissions or global targets that keep warming below 2C," said the report's lead author Dr Jim Watson, director of the energy research group at Sussex University.

"But unlike other low-carbon technologies, CCS doesn't exist at the commercial scale. We don't know when they will be technically proven at full scale, and whether costs will be competitive with other low-carbon options.

"So it is vital that the government's commitment leads to several full-scale CCS projects as soon as possible; only through such learning by doing will we know whether it is a serious option for the future."

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Levels of interest from business are phenomenal, despite the years of prevarication”

Matthew Spencer
Green Alliance
Other countries including Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, the US and China are also exploring the technology.

The government opened its first competition for CCS funds in 2007, but abandoned it four years later when the last contender - the Longannet coal-fired power station near Edinburgh - withdrew, saying the economics did not work out.

The new government scheme is far more flexible over what types of technology are eligible for funding, which the report says is the right approach.

Equally, it says, the single £1bn fund will not be enough to take the industry from its current fledgling state to the government's target of having 10GW of UK generation capacity equipped with CCS by 2030.

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Equipping coal- and gas-fired plant with CCS makes them considerably more expensive to run.

The plant itself becomes less efficient, meaning more fuel has to be burned to produce the same amount of electricity.

CCS-fitted stations could form part of a low-carbon mix alongside nuclear and renewables
The CO2 must be transported to its resting place - probably in liquid form through a pipeline - and a disposal site must be properly explored beforehand and monitored afterwards to make sure nothing escapes.

The report says the economic incentives for this extra investment will have to come from reforms to the electricity market that the government is working out at the moment, designed to supply additional and enduring support through guaranteeing prices for low-carbon electricity.

It also says the UK is well placed to lead the global market in skills and technology, and perhaps even sell some of the copious storage capacity that exists below the UK seabed to other countries.

"The UK has a huge amount of potential storage, amounting to about 700 years worth of emissions," said another of the report's authors, Prof Stuart Haszeldine from Edinburgh University.

"But that is as yet unproven; and no commercial company is going to go ahead and build a CCS facility costing maybe £1bn if they don't know they'll be able to inject CO2 for 30 years into that site."

Proving that a site is suitable for CO2 storage needs the same type of exploration needed in oil and gas exploration, he said - and investigating a single site could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and take five to 10 years, meaning that a programme for doing it should be developed soon.

The government will also have to work out rules on liability for leakage, he said, that are fair to both companies and the public purse.

Matthew Spencer, director of the Green Alliance, which produced its own analysis of CCS recently, agreed that investors needed support and confidence.

"Levels of interest from business are phenomenal, despite the years of prevarication," he told BBC News.

"We've lost a lot of time, and investors have to have much more certainty now if we're not to lose them; but we do have a good story in the UK of a rapidly growing industry.

"If the government pulls out the stops, we think 10GW is feasible."