Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Cambridge Environmental Initiative (CEI)


  This paper summarises the key points from a discussion meeting held at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, on Thursday 6 October 2005. The meeting was held in response to the UK Government Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into carbon capture and storage.

  The following people participated in the discussion, representing a selection of research groups and departments within the University of Cambridge:

  Professor Herbert Huppert FRS, Director of the Institute of Geophysics (Discussion chair)

Research interests: modeling of fluid flows, relevant to some aspects of carbon sequestration.

  Professor Mike Bickle, Department of Earth Sciences

Geochemist with expertise in modeling the likely consequences of storing CO2 over geological time scales.

  Dr Silvana Cardosa, Reader in Chemical Engineering

Research interests: seawater/ CO2 chemical reactions

  Dr Chris Hope, Senior Lecturer in Operational Research, Judge Business School

Expertise in modelling of risk and the costs and benefits of climate change.

  Dr Tamsin Mather, Department of Earth Sciences

Geologist; produced a briefing paper for the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology on CCS.

  Dr David Reiner, Lecturer in Technology Policy, Judge Business School

Research interests: public perception of CCS; climate policy research; works with the UK carbon capture consortium.

  Dr Nicky White, Reader in Earth Sciences

Expertise in 3D modelling, important for monitoring geological processes concerned with CO2 storage in geological structures.

  Professor John Young, Professor of Applied Thermodynamics, Department of Engineering

Expertise in the thermodynamics of capturing CO2 at source from power stations


  In terms of technological development and scientific understanding, there are two major areas requiring further work:

    —  Carbon capture at source: optimising the separation of CO2 from other flue gases

    —  Carbon storage: understanding the long-term behaviour of CO2 stored in geological strata.

  Assessing the economic viability of carbon capture and storage is dependent on several factors:

    —  the price of carbon;

    —  future cost reductions in the capture process;

    —  access to reservoirs for storage;

    —  public acceptability of storage sites and its costs relative to other electricity generation options.


2.1  Carbon capture at source

  Carbon capture at source is currently considered to be expensive. There are significant economies of scale for very large scale power plants eg 1,000MW. Carbon capture can either take place post-combustion or pre-combustion. Currently pre-combustion capture is most promising in terms of separating the CO2 efficiently and economically from the gas stream.

  Although basic turbo machinery is available now it may take many years to develop the new types of turbines required for power generation using "clean" fossil fuels. The UK does not currently manufacture the large turbines required (>250MW). Developing turbines optimised for power plants in which pre-combustion separation could occur represents significant design modification. Ideally this process should begin now, however development in this field is purely market-driven and companies will not invest unless there are strong financial incentives to do so. Even proven design changes that will increase efficiency are made very reluctantly. Implementing design changes in existing power plants would require substantial and costly redevelopment of the current power generation infrastructure. So the costs for developing new turbines for power generation and capture of carbon on-site should not be underestimated.

2.2  Carbon storage

  Once carbon dioxide has been captured, it needs to be stored to reduce build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The practice of pumping CO2 captured from a fuel production site into an existing oil or gas reservoir that has been depleted of its reserves is already established. Once there, it is possible to monitor the movement of the CO2 within the geological structure. Note the USA alone has an estimated saline reservoir storage capacity of 130 Gt (equivalent to 20 years of carbon emissions at the current rate of burning fossil fuels).

  BP, together with Scottish & Southern, ConocoPhillips and Shell, have recently launched a project in Scotland to separate CO2 and hydrogen at a power plant at Peterhead (near Aberdeen) and then use the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the Miller Field in the North Sea. The conditions of storage are not known, so seismic monitoring is being used to monitor the movement of the gas. Geophysicists at the University of Cambridge are working on the imagery and the problems associated with repeat seismic imaging. They are also using data from the Sleipner oilfield[34] but the raw data is not accessible from Statoil.

2.3  What are the risks?

  A leak from a CO2 storage reservoir would be likely to occur slowly permitting the recovery and re-storage of the gas. On a global climate change scale, the loss of CO2 from one field would not cause significant environmental hazard, and is nowhere near as insidious as nuclear waste hazard as a potential problem.

  The risks with CO2 storage are potential damage to pipelines taking CO2 to the storage sites and potential leakages from pipelines poisoning nearby communities. One area for further research is to investigate the spread of CO2 plumes in UK conditions and the wind conditions required to disperse them. This may be no worse than the risks associated with existing oil and gas pipelines.

2.4  Public understanding

  Mitigation of the effects of CO2 emissions via technological intervention needs international and inter-disciplinary collaboration. While geologists believe CCS to be viable, it is not just a technical problem, it is also important to establish public confidence in the method. One way of doing this is by early and thorough consultation with a diverse range of stakeholder groups (eg, environmental NGOs, local communities etc). Care should also be taken that the source of funding for particular research projects is not seen to undermine the objectivity of conclusions made.

  The problems of storage of nuclear waste have made the public very suspicious of long- term storage of waste products associated with power generation. However, the public are more familiar with CO2 than many other substances and understand that CO2 is emitted by cars, power plants and exhaled by people, and is sequestered by trees and plants. The challenge is in the presentation of the concepts and the inferences of long term storage are important. Some pressure groups may try to highlight extreme events involving CO2 such as stories of explosions and loss of life in Cameroon, Africa resulting from naturally occurring volcanic CO2 leakage at Lakes Mounoun and Nyos in the 1980s.[35] Transparency of information is essential to enable academic analysis and further research and to avoid a similar scenario to that of the early years of the nuclear energy age, when raw data was kept secret provoking public suspicion about the technology.

2.5  A global challenge

  In the time taken for the UK to debate its course of action, China will have built new coal power stations of many Gigawatts capacity, the effect of which will dominate global CO2 emissions. Every country now lives in a global world: environmental problems in other countries have immediate and major impact on the UK and likewise our pollution issues have major impacts elsewhere. Clean fossil fuel technologies are obviously attractive for the immediate future. Nuclear power represents another low carbon power generation route, although issues of waste management, technological barriers and fears concerning nuclear weapon proliferation may limit the extent to which it offers a solution for future global power requirements. Elimination of nuclear power as an energy generation option will have serious consequences in terms of CO2 emissions.

  A key question in tackling CO2 emissions will be to what extent the West is prepared to encourage China to build power plants that will not contribute further to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. China and India have a strong moral case for suggesting that developed countries must pay for the development of clean fuel technologies. The UK Government should look at what the costs of these technologies will be, and then compare that with the benefits of reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere. This will allow a sensible economic decision to be taken.

  Within the next two decades, the true effects of climate change will start to become apparent. Large scale destruction in major cities by extreme weather conditions in Developed countries may stimulate action. The cost of carbon is rising at about 3% per year, and in 30 years the cost of carbon will most likely be high. The real challenge is to respond now, before it is a necessity, particularly to allow industry to make the necessary technical developments.

October 2005

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