Should We Bet Big On Carbon Capture and Storage?

emissions come from a power plant

(Credit: Canva Pro)

by | Aug 1, 2023

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emissions come from a power plant

(Credit: Canva Pro)

Now that ConocoPhillips, JetBlue, and Shell have said they will partner with Avnos to produce a carbon capture technology, the world awaits the solution. In this case, it’s a hybrid technology that ensnares not just carbon but also water, making the system more efficient.

If this works, it is a good thing. But carbon capture and sequestration has been an elusive technology. Developers have yet to show it can work beyond the demonstration phase. Witness the failure of the government-funded FutureGen projects and some private deals, such as Southern Company’s Kemper plant. Moreover, cost overruns have tormented these ventures.

“That doesn’t mean these technologies don’t have a future. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have public policy that encourages the development of those technologies,” said Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He spoke last week at a forum hosted by the United States Energy Association, where this reporter was a panelist.

Capturing the carbon may be the easy part. Storing it underground is more challenging.

Researchers at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT have discovered that only a “small fraction” of the carbon dioxide solidifies and turns into rock after it is injected 7,000 feet below the earth’s surface. The rest, it adds, remains in a more “tenuous form.”

If the carbon is stored in deep aquifers with large brine pockets, it can solidify. However, the team found that this solidification creates a wall that prevents the bulk of the carbon dioxide from reacting with the brine.

“If it turns into rock, it’s stable and will remain there permanently,” says Yossi Cohen, who along with Daniel Rothman, performed the research, in an MIT release. “However, if it stays in its gaseous or liquid phase, it remains mobile and it can possibly return back to the atmosphere.” The two attempted to model the chemical reactions occurring after carbon dioxide is injected into a salty, rocky environment.

Atmospheric carbon levels are 50% greater than during the industrial revolution, necessitating more carbon removal and mitigation.

Oil Companies Are Digging Deep for Solutions

Equinor, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total are partnering with a Norwegian project called Glasnova. Their undertaking will transport liquid CO2 through pipelines to a reservoir beneath the bottom of the sea. Without large-scale storage, Norway can’t meet its climate obligations.

Exxon Mobil Corp. wants to catapult the concept further by using carbonated fuel cells that can concentrate and capture CO2 from power plants. FuelCell Energy and Exxon said developing this new technology would “substantially reduce costs” associated with carbon capture.

Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips, General Electric, and RoyalDutchShell Corp. are spending billions to develop coal gasification, carbon capture, and sequestration.

“Adding blue-chip strategic partners such as ConocoPhillips, JetBlue Ventures, and Shell provides us with an incredible opportunity to access more resources, know-how, and global reach to meaningfully accelerate our deployment schedule,” said Will Kain, chief executive of California-based Avnos. “Ultimately, we will be able to remove more atmospheric carbon, faster, and at lower costs than we would have been able to on our own.”

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act kicks in $369 billion for 21st-century energy and climate projects. That includes incentives for carbon capture and sequestration. But can they work?

The Petra Nova plant in Texas was the latest hyped carbon capture project to collapse. It cost $1 billion, with funding from the United States and Japan.

“I know that there is a lot of renewed interest in this innovative technology, and I generally favor that,” said Robert Gee, president of Gee Strategies Group, at the energy discussion. “But we’ve gotta get a lot smarter — how we build, scale, and finance demonstration plants. We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on plants that we’ve had to mothball. Let’s continue that R&D, but I think we need to get much smarter than we’ve done in the past.”

Carbon capture and sequestration is a tough sell in today’s environment — one that stresses using low-carbon fuels and one where building a new natural gas plant is much easier and cheaper. Ditto for wind and solar plants. But investing in carbon capture and storage may be unavoidable because we will use oil, gas, and coal well into the future. 

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