CCS sidelined by public opposition
In the EU, coal power currently accounts for about one fourth of electricity generation. Although many plants are scheduled for closure, new installations could impede EU climate policy for decades. Theoretically, CO₂ from the plants could be piped by a carbon capture and storage (CCS) network into subterranean geological formations. However, the CO₂ storage Directive 2009/31/EC estimates that by 2030 only “15% of the reductions required in the Union” would be achievable by these means.
Based on the approximately 50 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions reduced in the EU annually, CCS would therefore account for a decidedly small fraction of carbon dioxide avoidance. However, the actual capture figure would be much higher. First, additional coal energy would be required for CO₂ separation, compression, and long-distance pipeline transport. Furthermore, two to three times the current greenhouse gas reductions will be necessary to limit global warming to 2°C.
Storing vast quantities of compressed carbon dioxide underground challenges the plausibility of CCS proposals. The CO₂ would have to be forced into deep geological brine formations at energies sufficient to unleash minor earthquakes. Ice Age glaciers have carved long furrows into ancient sediments throughout Northern Europe. The highly pressurized CO₂ could extrude salt water through numerous fissures into overlying strata, imperiling the drinking water supplies of future generations.
Public opposition groups such as “Kein CO₂ Endlager” (No CO₂ Repository) in Germany and “Skifergas nej tak” against shale gas extraction in Denmark have assessed possible groundwater contamination from injecting carbon dioxide and fracking fluid at pressures of up to several hundred atmospheres. These opponents are critical of any “CO₂ time bombs” laid under areas of human habitation. Government mining authorities discount such figurative references in favour of substantiated geological evidence. However, appropriate verification would be impossible before millions of tons of carbon dioxide had been irretrievably injected into subterranean geological formations.
Extensive preparations are required even before storage operations begin. In 2008, RWE planned to transport 2.6 million metric tons of CO₂ annually from its Hürth lignite power plant in the Rhineland to near the Danish border. Following the 530 km pipeline route announcement, a petition with 100,000 signatures against carbon dioxide transport and storage was presented by “Kein CO₂ Endlager” to German parliament. RWE soon cancelled the project and later closed the Hürth plant in 2015.
In contrast to widely distributed renewable energy technologies, CCS requires a single long equipment chain that must be fully functional to perform as intended. The additional energy and water requirements of capturing and compressing carbon dioxide have often been overlooked.
In Hamburg, for instance, a Vattenfall 1,640 MW coal power station on the Elbe River was approved by the city administration in 2007 under the condition of advanced-technology CO₂ avoidance. Friends of the Earth (BUND), however, warned that circulating river water through the auxiliary plant equipment for cooling would inadmissibly raise fish habitat temperatures. As the CCS application deadline approached in 2014, the necessary prerequisites for plant retrofitting, CO₂ transport, and geological storage proved unattainable. The conventional Moorburg plant therefore entered service in 2015 as a climate policy liability.
While Directive 2009/31/EC stipulates that CCS “should not serve as an incentive to increase the share of fossil fuel power plants”, its ongoing development lies in the interest of steam turbine manufacturers and pipeline construction companies. In 2009, the European Commission provided subsidies of up to €180 million each for a half-dozen pilot ventures in Member States to demonstrate various carbon capture and storage technologies.
None of these projects has fulfilled expectations. A 250 MW oxyfuel plant at Vattenfall’s 3,000 MW Jänschwalde site near Berlin was initially funded until faulty planning compelled its cancellation. A 300 km pipeline had been proposed to the largely depleted Altmark gas fields north of Magdeburg for CO₂-enhanced natural gas extraction. The opposition group “Kein CO₂ Endlager Altmark”, however, found the area to be perforated with abandoned gas wells. The subsequent prospect of shale gas fracking in the region is now being closely scrutinized.
If the European Commission had acknowledged the critical evidence provided by citizen interest groups at an early stage, EU energy policy would have been more accountable. A recent €3.9 million government grant in Germany for CCS research has again made this issue relevant. While carbon usage techniques might be appended to certain industrial processes, their evaluation would be enhanced by increased public awareness. Nevertheless, these specialized applications offer no prospect of averting climate change by neutralizing relatively small quantities of CO₂.
Jeffrey H. Michel
The author, Jeffrey H. Michel, is an energy policy specialist living in Germany and the USA.