As the world digests the latest grim warning from the IPCC, attention is turning to Australia’s “technology not taxes” approach. And central to that is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Key points:

  • The Australia Institute says about $4 billion of taxpayer money has been spent on CCS
  • Proponents say CCS needs to play a role to abate emissions from steel and concrete production
  • Experts predict consumer demand will see an exponential shift towards renewable energy generation

New data shows that almost $4 billion of taxpayer money has been committed to develop the technology and after decades it is still not operating at industry scale.

But Mark McCallum, CEO of Low Emission Technology Australia (LETA, formerly Coal21), which is funded by the black coal industry, said the challenges for CCS had been overcome.

“In Australia we’re actually in a really good position now that we’ve established these large-scale storage sites,” he said, referencing progress at trial sites in Queensland and South Australia.

The insinuation is that deployment of the widespread industrial-scale CCS is not far away, and despite a huge surge in investment in renewables, Mr McCallum said carbon capture technology had to play a role in emissions reduction. 

“CCS gives us an option to generate that power, but cleanly.”

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But Richi Merzian, director of climate and energy at think tank The Australia Institute, said proponents had long claimed large-scale CCS was just around the corner.

His team has crunched the numbers on how much taxpayer money has been spent so far on CCS research and development.

“Since 2003, Australian governments have committed over $4 billion of public money to carbon capture and storage, with hardly anything to show for it,” Mr Merzian said.

“When it comes to the targets being set for carbon capture and storage, all the examples that we looked at — from the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel, or local targets set by the Australian government, or the Australian Coal Association, or even industry groups — we’ve found that every single one of those targets has been missed.”

Will CCS ever work at scale?

Carbon capture and storage technology is not new, it’s been used commercially since the 1970s, and there are dozens of commercial-scale projects around the world.

Australia has the largest facility in the world at Chevron’s Gorgon LNG project off the West Australian coast.

But while CCS technology is well understood, its implementation is proving problematic and very expensive.

At the Gorgon project, for example, while the project started in 2016, CCS still was not operating until years later, and today the project has not met its target to capture 80 per cent of emissions in its first five years.

“Every single carbon and capture storage project is bespoke,” said Greg Bourne, a climate and energy expert at the Climate Council, who also had an extensive career in the oil and gas industry.

Mr Bourne said unlike wind or solar technology, CCS plants had to be tailor-made for the project, be it a coal power station, LNG plant, or steel or cement making.

A view of the Liddell coal-fired power plant from across a lake, with swans in the foreground

After 50 years in operation, the Liddell power station near Muswellbrook in NSW is nearing the end of its life and will close in 2022 or 2023.(

ABC News: John Gunn

)

The Global CCS Institute says currently “some 40 megatonnes of CO2 are captured and stored annually”. 

“What they don’t talk about is it produces extra oil, which when burnt puts 74 million tonnes a year back into the atmosphere. So it’s a net positive technology at the moment,” Mr Bourne said.

The Global CCS Institute concedes CCS needs to increase “at least 100-fold by 2050”.

“Considering the role for CCS implicit in the IPCC 1.5 Special Report, somewhere between 350 and 1,200 gigatonnes of CO2 will need to be captured and stored this century,” its 2020 report said.

An aerial view showing the large amount of solar panels, with an office that looks small by comparison.

Solar farms like this one at Emerald are being built across regional Queensland.(

ABC News: Russel Talbot

)

Can renewables power heavy industry?

On the other side of the discussion, critics of renewable energy like Nationals Senator Matt Canavan claim they are “duds” and say they will never be able to power heavy industry.

The Climate Council sort of agrees. 

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But Mr Bourne said the capacity of renewable energy was changing rapidly.

“There is no doubt that as we bring more solar, more wind into the system, more batteries into the system, more storage into the system, we will begin to change a lot of possibilities,” Mr Bourne said.

400pc increase in big solar

Gero Farruggio, a renewable energy expert at the independent Rystad Energy, said global investment in renewables was about to reach  $250 billion, and investment in big solar had jumped 400 per cent since the pandemic. 

“Only a couple of years ago, only 10 per cent of all the capacity [of solar] installed globally was 300 megawatts or above,” he said.

“Next year we expect that to account for up to 50 per cent installed globally.”

Mr Farruggio said there was a huge global shift in consumer sentiment demanding zero-emissions energy.

“Corporations have responded to this and they are getting much more aggressive in setting their targets for renewable energy,” he said.

Oil super majors now superchargers

Mr Farruggio said the COVID-19 pandemic saw big oil face the biggest fall in demand in history, some of which would never return.

“They realised that had to evolve to survive and they set renewable energy capacity targets. These are quite aggressive targets which will put them in the list of top renewable developers globally,” he said.

“The renewable industry, ultimately, everyone underestimates, and overestimates the fossil fuel industry. So I think it’s going to come quicker and sooner than everyone expects.”

Posted , updated 

Carbon capture, storage trials reaching $4b for taxpayers, but what can power heavy industry instead?
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