Does best CCS power station in world provide model for Australia?

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Petra Nova, the leading CCS power project globally, may be an impressive piece of engineering, but makes a tiny difference to the generator’s emissions and demonstrates that the technology is un-investable. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see another CCS power station built within a decade, if ever, in either the US or Australia.

On 1 May the Federal Minister for Energy and the Environment, Josh Frydenberg, posted a YouTube video (43 views at time of writing, 10 of which, I confess, were me) of his visit to the second ‘significant’ CCS power station in the world, the Petra Nova project at the WA Parish Generating Station in Texas.

In the video Josh claimed that the US$1bn project was “helping to reduce the carbon footprint by some 40%”.

josh frydenburg texas

Federal Minister for Energy and the Environment, Josh Frydenberg at the WA Parish Power Plant in Texas, USA.

The Parish Power station is pretty big: 2,462 MW of coal and 1,191 MW of gas generation which together emitted 15.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Mt CO2e) in 2015.

(By comparison, the Loy Yang coal fired power station in Victoria has a capacity of 3210 MW and emitted 18.4 Mt CO2e in 2015-16, ie. the two plants are pretty similar in size and climate impact.)

If NRG Energy, the owner of the project, has found a way to cut carbon emissions by 40%, ie. 6.2 Mt annually, for just US$1bn, then we need to get the CEFC on to this technology quick sticks!

And that’s exactly what Josh is trying to make happen with his announcement on Tuesday that the Turnbull Government will seek to convince the Senate that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation should provide taxpayer funded loans to CCS projects.

Let’s dig deeper.

The Parish station has 10 generating units, only one of which has been upgraded with carbon capture, Unit 8. Of the 610 MW unit’s exhaust, 40% is diverted into a ‘post-combustion capture’ (PCC) system designed to capture 90% of the CO2 in that stream.

The facility, commissioned in January, is gearing up to capture 1.4 Mt per annum (Mtpa) or just 9.1% of the Parish plant’s total emissions, a far cry from the 40% claimed by the Minister for Energy and the Environment.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.

Carbon capture is an energy intensive process. The world’s first commercial scale plant, SaskPower’s Boundary Dam power station in Canada — which after 2.5 years of operation is only just now getting close to its design capacity of 1 Mtpa or 18% of the plant’s 5.7 Mtpa emissions — requires around 25% of the plant’s capacity be diverted back into the plant to power the capture and compression systems.

In the case of Petra Nova, NRG built a separate gas fired power station next to the facility to generate the electricity and steam needed to run the CCS process.

Boundary Dam, Saskatchewan, Canada aims to capture up to 18% of the plant’s emissions.

Boundary Dam, Saskatchewan, Canada aims to capture up to 18% of the plant’s emissions.

For all the hype, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are hundreds of CCS power plants operating around the world and that Australia is coming late to the party.

In fact, there are exactly two commercial scale plants in operation globally, and they’ll soon be joined by a third — the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi, a small (528 MW) but innovative plant.

Kemper is three years late and, much to the chagrin of owner Southern Company’s shareholders and energy consumers in Mississippi, more than US$5.5bn over budget.

Kemper country Missisippi

Kemper County Energy Facility, Mississippi, USA aims to capture 65% of plant’s CO2 emissions.

All three CCS power projects are designed to capture and compress part of their CO2 emissions and direct the majority towards Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) projects.

In the process, CO2 is injected into otherwise unproductive oil wells. The CO2 forms an emulsion with the previously unreachable oil and forces it to the surface where most of the CO2 is separated and reinjected back into the oil field.

Putting aside the somewhat Pythonesque proposition that CO2 being put underground to avoid warming the planet is being used to extract oil which will be burnt thereby warming the planet, it turns out the ‘sequestration’ part of the CCS process is itself compromised by EOR.

Canadian research reports that for EOR in the Weyburn Field, where much of Boundary Dam’s CO2 will end up, only 70% is expected to remain underground, with the remainder escaping back into atmosphere.

Given these two degrading factors — high ‘parasitic’ energy demand for the capture process and significant carbon leakage in the storage component — the actual reduction of emissions from the Parish power station from NRG’s US$1bn investment is probably closer to 6%. Somewhat less than Josh’s 40%.

NRG’s CEO has claimed that the Petra Nova CCS project “made both strategic and economic sense at $75 to $100 a barrel” and that “obviously [with oil selling for US$45 a barrel], it does not currently make economic sense.”

Given that US gas and renewables both halved in cost during the eight years it took to deliver the project, it’s no surprise that NRG has no current plans to invest in any more CCS.

Saskpower, owners of Boundary Dam, have no stated plans for more CCS, and the earnings calls of the Southern Company, owners of the Kemper Project, make it clear that Southern’s C-suite wishes they’d never heard of the technology.

No other CCS projects are on the drawing board in the US (or Canada or Australia for that matter), so there’ll be nothing more delivered there this decade.

And with the Trump administration cutting CCS funding by 85% (both Petra Nova and Kemper received significant grants) nobody expects another CCS plant in the US before 2030 either. By that time the Parish Station will be 53 years old and in line for a gold watch.

Turning our thoughts back to Australia, if we wanted to capture all of the emissions of the Loy Yang power station in Victoria, we’d need a plant 13 times bigger than Petra Nova.

With currency and Australian labour rates, but allowing for some economies of scale and ‘learnings’, that would likely cost AUD$15–25bn. To put that in context, as of 30 June 2016, the total of all loans provided by the CEFC ever was almost $2.3bn.

It’s amazing how quickly we forget that we’ve been here before.

In 2006 Australia embarked on a project to build a CCS power station in Central Queensland called ZeroGen. Belying its name, the project was to expected to capture only 65% of its CO2 emissions, and at 390MW net, would have been Australia’s smallest coal power station by a country mile.

The central Queensland project received $188m in grants — $102.5m from the Queensland Government, $47m from Coal21 (ie. funds diverted from Queesland coal royalties) and $38.5m from the Federal Clean Energy Initiative. A Brisbane Times article from March 2008 breathlessly proclaimed that the full-scale plant was to come on line in 2017 (this year!) and:

ZeroGen CEO Anthony Tarr said the full cost of the power plant project will be $1.7 billion – $500 million more than originally planned.

Originally estimated to cost at $1.2bn, detailed engineering studies yielded an revised estimate of $6.9bn. The project collapsed in 2011, taking with it hundreds of millions of public funding. Thank goodness taxpayers lost only $188m — Queensland came awfully close to building its own Kemper project.

Back to the Texas CCS project that Josh Frydenberg is so excited about. No doubt this expensive demonstration plant is an amazing feat of engineering. If we can put aside the fact that this exemplary CCS power project is helping the oil sector increase CO2 emissions, at best the project is making a very modest difference to the power station’s emissions.

Technically, it’s interesting. Economically, it’s a dog.

Note. Frydenberg’s office has been advised of this 666% overstatement and given the opportunity to correct the record.

Additional note: CCS as a technology has a lot of potential for reducing emissions from industrial processes, such as cement and steel manufacture and natural gas processing. It’s not the technology that’s a dog, it’s the application to power stations.

CCS is one arm of ‘clean coal’. For an analysis of the other arm, HELE, please see my answer to How clean are Australia’s ‘Clean Coal’ Power stations?

Source: Quora. Reproduced with permission.  

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  • Chris Fraser

    So a CCS plant requires an additional 25% of the plant’s capacity to be diverted to power the capture and compression systems, in order to save 18% of the plant’s emissions. To me that means you would have to dig 25% more coal, with its unabated emission potential, to save just 18% of its own emissions. This can’t be a saving of emissions in any sense of the word. It’s only designed to extend coal jobs, not save emissions.

    • Mike Shackleton

      Someone should educate proponents of CCS on a little concept known as the laws of thermodynamics…

  • Ian

    This article certainly points out this ludicrous CCS notion, as has been done many times before, but still the stupidity resurfaces. We cannot afford wasted taxpayer money on such ventures. When will the likes of Frydenberg stop? This is not a funny joke anymore.

    • Shane White

      If I may leverage off your comment Ian, nothing personal.

      Keep in mind carbon sequestration is imperative for return to a safe climate:

      Dr James Hansen and Co. have stated for temperatures to return less than the Holocene maximum of 0.5C (exceeded in 1985), atmospheric CO2 concentration must be reduced to less than 350ppm, or risk the awakening the slow feedbacks such as ice sheet instability.

      To return to <350ppm by 2100, if we reduce emissions at -3%/yr globally starting in 2021, we need to sequester 237 PgC, and at -6%/yr 153 PgC. To provide context, 237 PgC is about what the global oceans sink over 87 years by my figuring. Furthermore, the quoted greenhouse reduction rates are without historic precedent being global. As an example, when Russia climbed out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, their GHGs reduced at about -5%/yr for a few years, coupled with widespread misery.

      By excluding a requirement for sequestration and aiming to return to a safe climate, a reduction rate of -6%/yr beginning in 2021 (in just 3.5 years) yields about 390ppm by 2100 according to Hansen. Such a concentration results in a global mean temperature a bit over a degree, around Eemian levels where we are now which is far too high.

      To suggest we can manage even more rapid emission reductions seems absurd, so remember we desperately need carbon sequestration in a big way. Hansen suggests we can achieve this by primarily relying on afforestation and reforestation, in conjunction with the rapid GHG reduction rates quoted above. I think we need to see a wide range of efforts rolled out with war-time like haste.

      Simply rolling out solar PV and wind turbines, excluding nuclear and not addressing our massive and urgent carbon sequestration requirement will not result in a safe climate. We've "left it too late" for that.
      WE NOW HAVE A MASSIVE AND URGENT CARBON SEQUESTRATION REQUIREMENT in addition to a requirement for rapid rates of emission reduction.

      For something short and easy to read, that reinforces Hansen's work above, read The World's Biggest Gamble:

      It's all horrible, isn't it?

  • Another excellent factual editorial by Simon Holmes à Court

  • Chris Fraser

    I don’t see why we have to pay for Josh to fly business class to Texas just to piss in our pocket …

  • Les Johnston

    The facts on CCS do not lead a reasonable person to suggest that spending money on CCS is more likely to give environmental benefits than spending the same money on renewable energy systems. The costs and risks do not stack up. Thanks for the analysis.

  • Patrick Comerford

    Why can’t we just admit it Frydenburgh is a liar.

  • Just_Chris

    I find this article really depressing. On one hand on this site we give a free pass to expensive renewable energy sources and related technology in particular batteries, solar thermal, marine power and to a certain degree solar PV because they are not fully developed. Then we slate CCS by suggesting that a few trials are not economically viable? The article also doesn’t cover any of the work being done in Norway, China or Japan. That doesn’t sound reasonable and it essentially means we are no better than the far right loons strutting around muttering about Climate change being rubbish.My personal opinion is that there is a place for CCS, especially in the oil and gas industry – which makes up 7% of Australia’s emissions. These are essentially dumb emissions that could be avoided.

    So in direct answer to your question with regard to if there is a good model for CCS in Australia, IMO, the Sleipner CO2 Injection project in Norway is a good example. This field injects about 1.2 million tons per year and has been in operation since 1996. The CO2 is taken out of the natural gas before it is transported onshore. This seems reasonable to me and could be replicated in Australia. The natural gas industry in Australia already removes CO2 from natural gas to stop it freezing in the LNG plants but that CO2 is currently just vented. The Norwegian project will essentially be replicated in Gorgon in WA by Chevron. Once up and running this will inject 4 million tons per year – that’s equivalent to around 4% of WA’s emissions. That is worth having.

    CCS is not my favorite technology and I am not suggesting that it is some kind of miracle technology that will magically get us to zero CO2 emissions but I think it is something that if deployed sensibly could have a pretty major effect pretty rapidly and take some of the pressure off the carbon budget.

    • Mike Shackleton

      CCS from Gas fields is not the same as CCS from a power plant. Stripping CO2 from Methane is done because it makes the gas a saleable product. Carbon Dioxide in gas pipes also is corrosive on the pipes and fittings.

      Venting it to the atmosphere is irresponsible and makes a lie of Gas being cleaner than coal, but separating it and re-injecting it can increase the recoverable resource from a gas field. There are ways of turning CO2 recovered from natural gas into Methanol, which is what one company with assets in the Timor Sea is proposing.

      CCS from a power station is akin to alchemy, or a perpetual motion machine. The energy required to sequester Carbon Dioxide ends up being greater than the energy produced as electricity from the power plant. Its nothing to do with being negative about a new tech, it’s everything to do with obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

      • Just_Chris

        Hi Mike,

        The natural gas industry understand exactly how to handle CO2 in pipelines and big plants, they do it every day. They also understand how to store gas underground – they do that everyday on a massive scale as well, just look at the Iona gas field – thousands of liters of gas sitting underground going nowhere. It would add cost to the natural gas to capture and store the CO2 which is why they don’t do it. That cost can be reduced if more natural gas or oil can then be extracted from the same well but I think that isn’t really reducing CO2 emissions… I suppose you could argue it is because you are getting more energy for the same emissions you are but it seems like a bit of a con to me. The problem with CCS in the gas industry is everything to do with there being no will to do it and nothing to do with it being technically challenging. If the WA government had said you will have to reserve 15% of natural gas for the domestic market and re-inject 80% of any CO2 you remove from the natural gas you extract before you turn it into LNG then the gas industry probably would have done it. There would have been all sorts of non-sense about how unfair it would be to the Australian gas producers and how there is no way it could be done economically etc. but essentially they would have done it because there is very little overhead to operating in Australia. It’s not like you have to factor in the risk of terrorists blowing things up or our government doing something that results in sanctions.

        CCS with power generation isn’t perpetual motion it takes a 40% efficient coal fired power station and turns it into a 30% efficient power station and adds about 3-4 c/kWh to the power coming out. That is not as scary as it sounds, most coal power stations in Australia are less than 30% efficient right now. Again it is a fairly well understood process but why would you do it? Pretty much every trial of CCS over the last 5 years has come to the same conclusion – it’s possible but it will cost money to do so we are not going to do it. To be honest if the coal industry only has it’s self to blame for it’s demise. If it had actually grabbed the opportunity and started building zero emission coal fired power stations when it cost 20 c/kWh for renewables then it would be looking like it had a future right now but instead it is left trying to tell people that coal is cheap at 12 c/kWh and that adding 3 c/kWh to the price isn’t so bad. That’s a pretty hard sell when wind is half the price and gas is cheaper and more flexible. The next cab off the rank is the gas industry – they are currently strutting around like they own the place but there are plenty of new storage technologies coming through (not just lithium ion batteries) if wind keeps getting cheaper and people keep putting solar in, then gas industry is going to find it’s self in the same place as the coal industry. If the gas industry wants to be around in 15 years time it needs to start building CCS plants, bio-gas facilities and probably playing with hydrogen right now so they can keep up with whats coming down the RE track.

        • Simon Holmes A Court

          chris, where do you get 2-4c/kWh for CCS/power? numbers i’ve seen are all over $100/MWh, up to $150/MWh — ie. 10-15c/kWh, though these are all guesses since the only plant that has been running for long enough to have any data, boundary dam, has not published an analysis of the actual costs.

    • Simon Holmes A Court

      chris, you might have missed my last paragraph (perhaps too buried?):

      > Additional note: CCS as a technology has a lot of potential for reducing emissions from industrial processes, such as cement and steel manufacture and natural gas processing. It’s not the technology that’s a dog, it’s the application to power stations.

      i think CCS has a potentially important role for industrial processes. there are some where it may cost $10-$30/t and, so they will happen with a modest carbon price.

      CCS on power stations, however, is a non-starter — simply because the capital required to capture the emissions has way more bang for the carbon-abatement in a wide number of solutions, including CCS on industrial processes.

  • John Roach

    “Note. Frydenberg’s office has been advised of this 666% overstatement and given the opportunity to correct the record.”
    Please keep the pressure on Josh to respond, it’s imperative he does.This article appears very comprehensive as it must be , so the boffins can dissect the details. Can you also create a short bullet point claim and counter claim, for us less than boffins to digest and understand.So broad support can be gained . Cheers Thanks for the good work

    • Simon Holmes A Court

      that’s a good idea — perhaps a ’10 things you didn’t know’, or how about construct it as a quiz?

  • DogzOwn

    And he’s Joshing about world leading CCS projects Otways and Gorgon, big claims but membrane separation CO2 easy from methane, no comparison with separation from power station flue gas

  • Joe

    Josh the Josher is Joshing us again.