Why CCS has to work

With energy generation likely to rely mainly on fossil fuels for the next couple of decades, it is vital that carbon capture and storage can prove effective at scale.

There is a great deal of controversy about capture and storage of CO2 emissions.  Some people worry about the permanence of storage, or whether seepages of CO2 from underground storage or transport pipelines could cause health and environmental issues.  Others contend that the capture process is too expensive.  Still others resent the implication that fossil fuels might continue to provide energy, rather than being replaced totally by renewable energies.

As a global pioneer in carbon capture technology, Alstom is backing the technology as one of the keys to achieving emissions reductions of at least 50 per cent by 2050.  And as a global supplier of power generation equipment to approximately 25 per cent of the installed base, our decision is not an uninformed one.

First, we know that the CO2 capture technology works.  We have demonstrated this through a number of pilot and demonstration projects of reasonable sizes, involving both oxyfuel and post combustion capture technologies.  Second, we are confident that the costs will come down, as they have done with many other new technologies. 

To achieve this, we need the support of governments and financiers in order to scale up CCS demonstrations and to deploy the technology more broadly.  But the main reason we feel confident in supporting CCS is because there is little choice – no-one has yet come up with a plausible plan B to deal with the rapidly growing fossil fuel emissions from emerging economies and developing countries.

Each year, Alstom updates its global market research on the power sector: the largest, but not the only, contributor of CO2 emissions in the world.  That research reveals some trends that concern us in terms of environmental outcomes.  The average addition of capacity to the global power generation system is now running at 230 to 260 GW annually.  To put that in perspective, Australia’s power generation capacity is currently about 60 GW. 

So each year, four times the Australian capacity is being added to the global power system.  Although there is a growing share of CO2 free capacity from renewable technologies and nuclear – our research estimates that about 45 per cent of the annual build is now CO2 free – the majority still involves generation from gas and coal.  Add to that the existing high proportion of fossil fuel generation in the global installed base, and it is clear that fossil fuels will predominate in the power sector for decades to come.  

By far the largest part of the current growth is being driven by emerging and developing economies.  Many countries in Asia and Africa have access to gas and coal, either domestic or imported from a number of sources.  Their priority is to provide power to the proportion of their populations that have none (33 per cent in Indonesia, over 40 per cent in India, more than 90 per cent in Rwanda) and to their growing industrial sectors.

These countries are not insensitive to concerns about climate change; many Asian countries have instituted policies to support renewable energy that rival those in developed countries.  However, there is no way that the explosion in Asian economic growth can be supported through using renewable energy alone, not given the speed at which these countries are developing. 

Policymakers and the public must come to terms with the fact that all fuels will continue to be used, because of valid economic and energy security considerations – the very considerations that drive policy in Australia.  In the same way as fears about the safety of nuclear generation must be faced, so must the concern about burgeoning emissions from fossil fuels.  If carbon capture, use, sequestration and storage is not the answer to this largest source of global emissions, what is?

Alstom will continue to provide the broadest possible range of fuel choices to our customers worldwide.  Our portfolio comprises a number of renewable energy technologies, including wind, solar, marine and hydro, as well as turbines for use in nuclear facilities.  We also focus on providing and maintaining the highest possible efficiencies in fossil fuel generating facilities.  But our knowledge of the global picture in power generation leads us to conclude that these approaches are not enough – something has to be done about emissions from gas and coal-fired plants.  That is why we invest in CCS, and why we hope that governments and financial institutions will invest with us – and that the public can be convinced on the issue.  A great deal depends on it.

Gwen Andrews is Vice President, Environmental Policies and Global Advocacy (Asia and Oceania) for Alstom.

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