"There are many ways to make this work, to make it a reality. We need to store it underground and we also need to use it like a commodity, to find ways to sell it and spread the cost around."
-- Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch Prime Minister
Lodewijk Nell points to the series of pipes and valves attached to the flue of a 1.1-gigawatt coal plant that supplies electricity to the Port of Rotterdam in South Holland. The gigantic, steam-spewing columns dwarf this system of scrubbers, absorbers and desorbers -- but the importance of the system is greater than any of the surrounding structures.
“This is potentially the power plant of the future,” he says. “This is our CCS [carbon capture and storage] facility.”
Nell is Business Development Manager for TNO, the company that owns and operates this CO2 catcher, called CATO. He points excitedly to the scrubber that purifies the flue gasses and creates a pure stream of CO2 that can be transported and used for a variety of applications or stored underground so that it won't be released into the atmosphere.
Like the other 120 or so projects in place around the world, CATO is just a pilot. This project, which is the first in the Netherlands, captures around 250 kg of CO2 per hour. That is only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of tons of greenhouse gasses emitted from this coal plant per day. But Nell says that the industry is not far away from a wide-scale deployment of larger, commercial-scale systems.
“Within one or two years, we will be ready to take the last step — to go to a demonstration plant and then commercial scale. Through process integration and learning how the system operates, we will be prepared to take that last step,” says Nell.
The CATO project was started in 2005 and has cost €27 million [US $34.2 million] to operate and monitor during the more than 3,000 hours of testing it has undergone. Building and testing the demonstration plant, which will take about four years to complete, will cost roughly €70 million [US $88.6 million].
TNO could theoretically scale up this plant to a demonstration size today, but that wouldn't make any sense given the current cost to capture CO2. According to Nell, it costs €40 [US $50] to capture one ton of CO2. The company is trying to cut that figure to around €20 per ton in the next five to ten years, which would make a larger project more attractive.
“We are confident in the technology and the potential to reduce costs. We have many other projects in place around the world, we have many hours of testing and it is evident that this will soon be a scaleable option,” says Nell.
There is still much debate over how far CCS is from being proven. But fossil energy companies like E.ON Benelux — the power provider that owns this coal plant — are positioning themselves to integrate the technology as soon as it's ready. With a carbon-constrained future on the horizon in more areas of the world, CCS will be a necessary tool to stay competitive.
“We need a whole range of options to meet future power needs. This is one of them. I think it's a very exciting technology and we need to explore its potential,” says Maxim Brouwer, Manager of Public Affairs at E.ON.
Along with storing the CO2, E.ON hopes use the gas to fuel the so-called “carbon economy,” creating new revenue streams and potentially turning a liability into an asset. The excitement — and skepticism — surrounding CCS has brought the industry to the center of the political conversation around how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a report from the U.S.-based firm Emerging Energy Research, government funding of CCS projects could reach US $70 billion over the next two decades. Most of the funding is being deployed throughout Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia.
In the U.S., for example, the recent stimulus bill provides $8 billion for CCS projects, representing a 70% increase over current federal funding. This dramatic hike in spending could speed up the commercial deployment of these systems.
In 2005, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on CCS, saying that it may not be commercially ready until 2050. However, due to recent funding commitments and the deployment of over 100 pilot projects world-wide, Emerging Energy Research predicts that CCS could become a cost-effective tool to reduce carbon emissions by as soon as 2016.
A variety of factors will need to be addressed before CCS is ready. In addition to lowering capture costs, which TNO's Nell says represent 80% of a project's total cost, sequestration methods will need to be refined.
Finding appropriate geological formations to sequester the gas is the next challenge for the industry. The most likely places are depleted oil and natural gas fields as well as saline aquifers, which provide adequate space for storing billions of tons of CO2. Properly selecting those sites, monitoring the gas flow and preventing leakage are some of the issues the industry must deal with.
Many scientists have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of storing so much CO2 underground. If too much CO2 mixes with groundwater, it could make that water more acidic, thus eating into rocks and leaching chemicals into drinking water. With proper monitoring and a better understanding of injection techniques, CCS proponents are confident that these issues can be mitigated or avoided.
“CCS is plausible — there are issues, of course. But that is the case for all new technologies. We will overcome them and make CCS a formidable part of our emission reduction targets,” says Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch prime minister and now chairman of the Rotterdam Climate Initiative.
At CATO, those sequestration problems don't need to be addressed — yet. The small amount of CO2 captured here will be transported downstream to greenhouses, where vegetable and flower growers use CO2 to increase crop yields. Today, the horticulture industry relies heavily on natural gas for this CO2.
There are currently about 500 greenhouses in Holland using CO2 waste streams from projects like CATO, accounting for a reduction of about 170,000 tons of the greenhouse gas per year, according to OCAP, a company that sells CO2 to growers. In the next few years, the company hopes to sign on hundreds more farmers and continue to lower the emissions profile of the industry.
While this project is small — and still relies on the burning of fossil fuels — it represents a glimpse of what the carbon economy may look like in the future. Sequestering the CO2 and reducing its presence in the atmosphere will be the first priority; however, creating additional revenue opportunities by partnering with growers, algae-to-biodiesel companies or using the gas to enhance production of existing oil fields will also be a part of the picture.
“There are many ways to make this work, to make it a reality,” says Lubbers. “We need to store it underground and we also need to use it like a commodity, to find ways to sell it and spread the cost around.”
Lubbers is an enthusiastic supporter of CCS. As Chairman of the Rotterdam Climate Initiative, he is helping the city find ways to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2025. Considering that CCS represents around 80 percent of those reductions, it's not surprising that he is so supportive of the technology.
But CCS may be the only way for this Dutch city — which houses the world's third-largest port — to make meaningful emissions reduction targets. With a range of chemical companies, oil refineries and coal plants like E.ON's, the city of Rotterdam seems like the perfect place to test out the viability of CCS and the potential for a broader carbon economy.
Back at the CATO plant, TNO's Nell looks at the network of equipment that makes up the CO2 catcher.
“Without CCS, we'll have trouble meeting our goals,” he says. “But it's possible to get there. We'll just have to keep testing, keep scaling up and continue to monitor how it works.”
For more on CCS in the Netherlands, listen to the podcast on RenewableEnergyWorld.com, The Netherlands, Part 1: Exploring the Dutch CO2 Economy or read more here.