Meeting during an RCGI event, climate change experts talked about the main bottlenecks for implementing CCS; technology is no longer a problem

The use of carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) has become crucial to the feasibility of mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And implementation no longer depends on technology, which is already mastered by science. The barriers, today, regard convincing society of its importance and knowing how to make money with those technologies. Furthermore, its massive implementation will depend on overcoming political and governance barriers, as well as costs, which are high, in the case of capturing carbon coming from fossil fuels, but they drop significantly in the case of capturing CO2 from biomass.

These were the main conclusions drawn from the two days of discussions among experts from Brazil and abroad, who met for the “Energy Transition, Research & Innovation” conference held in São Paulo, on October 1 and 2, by the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI).

The consensus among the researchers is that it is not only necessary to educate society regarding the importance of CCS, but also the governments. “The role of government is crucial. Investment in reforestation and in renewable energy sources is urgently needed. But, in the meantime, we must do something about it. We must remember that Nature does not need us, but we need her,” stated Chinnakonda Gopinah, of India’s National Chemical Laboratory.

According to him, India still widely uses coal, and is seriously dependent upon importing energy sources, like coal, natural gas, and petroleum. “The biggest opportunities for CCS in India are in the energy generation sector. The government has plans for investing in CCS, despite the high costs,” he said.

The presentation by Adam Hawkes, Director of the Sustainable Gas Institute, headquartered in Imperial College London, showed that the government can make a difference for good or bad. “We had three ‘waves’ of attempts to implement CCS in the United Kingdom. First, in the beginning of the millennium, there were four demonstration projects on the table. But there was a delay in the calendar and the government decided to do Front-End Engineering Design (FEED). The regulatory atmosphere also changed rapidly, and the companies involved ended up dropping out. During the second wave, 2012 through 2015, the government announced an amount made available for CCS projects and, then, said that it had no more money. Now, in 2018, a task force was organized and another project was created, this time focusing on creating CCS structures around industrial hubs, like Liverpool and Manchester.”

Hawkes says that, in the United Kingdom, the government was unable to create a reliable environment for CCS during any of its two first attempts. “The support of public policies was quite turbulent.” In his view, from a worldwide perspective, the barriers to the implementation of CCS are very small. “The challenges are commercial. And there is also concern regarding attracting investments for the activity.”

The costs of CCS operations are also indicated as a barrier, since most of the cost will be up to society, in general, where very little is known about CCS and the need for carbon capture and, therefore, support for the activity is still an enormous challenge. “I believe that it is not a question of cost, but fundamentally of value. Until society is able to understand the value of carbon abatement, it will not happen,” said Rob Littel, Shell’s General Manager Gas Separation.

Eric Larson, of Princeton University, believes that one of the main bottlenecks to CCS is political leadership. “At the present time, I believe there will be no political leadership for CCS action in Brazil or in the U.S., which is my country, for obvious reasons.”

According to Professor Julio Meneghini, Scientific Director of the RCGI, the dissemination of knowledge regarding climate change and CCS by scientists is essential and has the power for impacting society, which can bring pressure to bear on governments. “This has to be done on a step-by-step basis, and there are many step to be taken until we achieve a decarbonized society, 30 years from now. It is necessary to balance political actions and conversations with the government, to make it understand the importance of the subject.”

CCUS – Another way of “storing” carbon is to transform it into products that are useful to society and industry, that is the so-called Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS). Alissa Park, a Professor at Columbia University, listed the top 5 products that can be obtained from CO2: concrete, fuels, aggregates, polymers, and methane. “Here, the basic question is: how much can we earn from these products and how do we create a market for them? Besides noting the fact that the energy input needed for transforming CO2 into products, such as chemicals, for example, must come from a clean source.”

She stressed that, currently, it is very difficult to obtain a license for burying carbon in the U.S. “Getting permission for reinjection is much easier.”

According to her, the technological bridge represented by CCS and CCUS is not transitory, but has been a strategy for decades, and it will be for coming generations. “We need to advance in fundamental science and engineering, in order to deliver these solutions. And there are several solutions. Brazil apparently is not very committed to CCUS, but it is heavily committed to bioenergy. It is possible to deal with both, jointly, but I imagine it is necessary to put a little more pressure on the government.”

As she sees it, there is a trend to obtaining energy from high-energy gases, like CO, H2, and CH4. “These are usually residual gases produced by steel mills, for example. They are new-generation biofuels, and we are working a lot with them in the U.S.”

The price of carbon – Placing a price on carbon was another issue addressed by the researchers and considered to be a key to scaling up CCS activities. “I do not believe that there will be a single worldwide price for carbon. Each country must stipulate a par price for the carbon it does not emit,” says Professor Larson.

He heads up a project called Rapid Switch, which is dedicated to studying the bottlenecks, barriers, and unintentional consequences that could arise in different sectors, and in different parts of the world, regarding energy transition. “We want to know how to maximize the transition rate: how to make it happen faster,” the Professor summarized. Energy intensity, critical materials, capacity of human resources, organization, and transformation of infrastructure are some of the points being looked at by the project’s scientists.

“The U.S., for example, would have to reduce its energy intensity by 75%, in order for us to be able to limit the Earth’s temperature increase to only 2°C by 2060,” he revealed, explaining that energy intensity is the measurement used for energy use per dollar of the GDP.

How much and where to store – Comparing scenarios obtained by different types of modelling, which is based on limiting the temperature increase to no more than 2°C by 2060, Professor Larson gave an idea of how much would have to be stored. “Under the so-called 2DS scenario, of the International Energy Agency, it would be necessary, annually, to store 7 gigatons, worldwide. That is a very substantial amount of CO2 to be stored.”

According to him, different documents show that there is a great capacity for storing CO2, worldwide. “Most of publications state that there is much more storage capacity than we need, even under the 2°C scenario. But we need to find a way to make money with this; otherwise, we will not be able to scale up the activity. There are questions regarding how much of this capacity will actually be useable, and those questions depend on a variety of factors, like geography, injection, the necessary institutional and business capacities, and others. We need to better serve these areas.”

As Rob Littel, from Shell, sees it, there is also a question of priorities. “I think that we should begin with what is easiest, most viable. The problem of aviation emissions, for example, is significant, but highly difficult to resolve in the short or medium term. There are emissions sources that can be captured more easily. Let’s start with them.”

Beyond CO2 – Physicist Paulo Artaxo, a member of the IPCC discussion panel and a Professor at the University of São Paulo, emphasized that climate change is changing, and faster than the models of ten years ago showed. “We became accustomed to looking at CO2, because it is the main driver of climate change, but it is not the only one. It is important that we broaden our view on how to deal with research in the area of climate change. Yes, the climate of our planet is controlled by the concentration of GHG’s, but also by such pollutants as ozone, methane, and black carbon; and it is mediated by clouds, aerosols, by the albedo of the surface, and by the angle of the radiation of the sun. It is a very complex system, and we must be attentive to the different feedbacks this system gives us.”

Furthermore, he says that the problem is not only with the climate. That is just one of the problems. “The utilization of biomass production by the human species, in some places around the world, comes to 60%, 70% of the globe’s primary liquid vegetable production. And that causes many different impacts, such as changes in the organic carbon of the soil, for example. This is a very important property of the soil, which sustains agriculture, the nitrogen-fixing microbiota…. In some areas of India, the European Union, and even in Brazil, changes in the organic carbon of the soil on the order of 40%, 50% are recorded.” He emphasized that, unfortunately, emission levels continue to climb.

The event, consisting of panel discussions, lectures, and research presentations, was attended by more than 300 researchers. Attendees included the Secretary of Infrastructure and the Environment of the State of São Paulo, Marcos Penido; Shell’s Vice President of Carbon Abatement Technologies of Gas and Oil, David Torres; The Deputy Director of USP’s Polytechnic School, Reinaldo Giudice (representing Director Liedi Bernucci); the advisor of the Director of the National Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Biofuels Agency (ANP), Alex Garcia de Almeida, representing the President of the regulatory agency, Décio Oddone; the President of the Research Foundation of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP), Marco Antônio Zago; and USP’s Dean of Research, Sylvio Canuto, representing the President of the university, Vahan Agopyan.