Carbon capture moves a step closer
Much has been made of the potential of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The UK government, like many of its European counterparts, is banking on this new technology delivering to ensure we meet future emission reduction targets. So I was delighted to learn last week that an npower sister company’s pilot scheme has successfully captured its first tonne of carbon.
Aberthaw coal-fired power station in south Wales, operated by RWE Generation, will now continue testing and refining its carbon capture system over the next two years, in conjunction with partner Cansolv Technologies, part of the Shell Group. When running at full capacity, the system should capture around 50 tonnes of carbon each day – the equivalent to that produced by generating three megawatts of electricity, enough power to run around 4,500 homes.
Of course, that’s only a fraction of the 1500-megawatt generation capacity at Aberthaw, but this being a pilot means only a small volume of the plant’s gases are being put through the carbon capture system. The focus now is to get the technology running as efficiently and effectively as possible, and also to gather information about how it could be scaled-up.
There are also some key challenges to overcome before such a scheme could be rolled out for real. The S in CCS for starters. The Aberthaw pilot is only focusing on the carbon capture part. Storing carbon long term, as well as safely transporting it, is a whole other issue – and one that will require specialist input.
If you read the CCS page on the Department of Energy and Climate Change website, it will tell you that once the carbon has been captured, it is “then transported via pipelines and stored safely offshore in deep underground structures such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and deep saline aquifers”. So far, however, this hasn’t actually been tried out for real in the UK, or at least not on a commercial scale.
Cost is also an issue, as are logistics. Building carbon capture facilities on new power stations could quite possibly double the upfront infrastructure costs – as well as the physical size of the plant.
But once the carbon capture technology is proven and operational, it’s hoped the other issues will be far easier by comparison to overcome. And as with all new technologies, costs are likely to come down over time.
Although Aberthaw will be the only remaining coal-fired power station in the RWE UK fleet by the end of 2013, the carbon capture system being tested there has the potential to be utilised by other fossil fuelled plant including gas.
There are also economic benefits if the UK manages to lead the way in developing commercial CCS solutions. Earlier this year, Energy Secretary Ed Davey estimated it could be worth £6.5-billion a year to our economy by 2020 if we successfully export home-grown technology and expertise.
Clearly, there’s a lot of play for here. And so while there is much still to be done, Aberthaw’s crucial step on the journey to a workable CCS solution is certainly good news.