Carbon capture technology could make pollution worse, says Stanford report

There is no shortage of research questioning the credibility of carbon capture and storage as an effective tool in the fight against climate change, but a new report out of America’s Stanford University goes one step further, arguing that adding CCS to coal plants could be worse than having none at all.

The research, by Professor Mark Jacobson, compares the data from a coal plant with carbon capture and use (CCU) and a plant that removes carbon from the air directly (synthetic direct air carbon capture and use, or SDACCU), both of which use gas to power the carbon capture technology.

It finds that both of the plants either increase or hold constant their contributions to air pollution and reduce little more than 10 per cent of carbon emissions, before even considering sequestration or fugitive emissions.

And then there are the other drawbacks of the technology, including the high social cost of unfettered pollution and the high financial cost of installing the equipment.

“All sorts of scenarios have been developed under the assumption that carbon capture actually reduces substantial amounts of carbon,” said Jacobson.

“However, this research finds that it reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution.

“Even if you have 100 percent capture from the capture equipment, it is still worse, from a social cost perspective, than replacing a coal or gas plant with a wind farm because carbon capture never reduces air pollution and always has a capture equipment cost.”

On the other hand, he adds, “wind replacing fossil fuels always reduces air pollution and never has a capture equipment cost.”

The report is not alone in slamming the door on CCS as an effective carbon “escape route” for countries like Australia that wish to keep their coal fires burning. There have been many.

One, published late last year from consultancy Lazard, estimated that energy from an integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plant with carbon capture would cost $US231 per megawatt hour (MWh), far more expensive than both solar and wind generation.

But the data from Jacobson is damning about the ability of the technology to do its “one job” of preventing carbon from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. According to the data, the carbon captured at the two plants amounts to around 10-11 per cent of overall emissions produced, averaged over 20 years.

This is in stark contrast to some of the more optimistic and common estimates of carbon capture technologies, the report notes – including those bandied about by some of Australia’s top politicians – of around 85-90 per cent of emissions.

The research also looks at the social cost of carbon capture – including air pollution, potential health problems, economic costs and overall contributions to climate change – and finds it hardly an improvement at all on a coal plant without the technology.

Even when the capture equipment is powered by renewable electricity, Jacobson concluded that it is always better to use the renewable electricity instead to replace coal or natural gas electricity or to do nothing, from a social cost perspective.

“The low net capture rates are due to uncaptured combustion emissions from natural gas used to power the equipment, uncaptured upstream emissions, and, in the case of CCU, uncaptured coal combustion emissions,” the report says.

“Moreover, the CCU and SDACCU plants both increase air pollution and total social costs relative to no capture.”


4 responses to “Carbon capture technology could make pollution worse, says Stanford report”

  1. michael quinlan Avatar
    michael quinlan

    great storey Sophie……. Here is something to challenge the thinking and perhaps take your articles in a new direction…….Renewable hydrogen can be combined with carbon dioxide to form renewable methane as a part of the “Sabatier reaction”. If solar and wind are the generation sources than it is still necessary to have a way of storing and transporting energy to areas that dont have transmission lines or generation sources. Lithium batteries have made rapid advancements and solid state batteries show a promising improvement on lithium although will still be limited to the amount of energy stored/kg. A fuel such as renewable methane would be useful and adaptable to be used in existing infrastructure such as LNG and could power electricity grids without supply side intermittency issues. carbon dioxide could be collected and recycled from our atmosphere/carbon capture plants to be combined with renewable hydrogen to form renewable methane ….. personally , I think that renewable methane will have a very important role in the future decarbonisation of human energy industries, which will demand the collection of carbon dioxide

  2. Joe Booth Avatar
    Joe Booth

    carbon capture – a fools errand, has always been and i believe will always be. so stop spending money on it and start spending it on not producing the crap in the first place.

  3. Phil NSW Avatar
    Phil NSW

    I am glad the professional community is starting to demonstrate logical debate in this field.

    I agree the other pollutants of coal fired power would still go un-captured and need to be considered. Pollutants such as mercury, arsenic just to mention a couple. SO2 also remains as a potential un-captured GHG.

    I made this post 3 months ago.

    Phil NSW • 3 months ago • edited

    CCS is one of the biggest hoaxes going. CO2 weighs 366% more than the carbon used to produce it. Coal has from 55% to 80% carbon dependant on quality. Just for the sake of a number lets say 66%. That means for each tonne of coal you produce 2.44 tonnes of CO2. The benign form after CCS is likely to be twice that mass at least. So one tonne of coal requires storage of something 5 times heavier. From an engineering point of view, think about the cost of running a parallel process to chemically modify the CO2 to a product which is benign. We already know electricity can be produced at a lower cost than an existing coal fired power station. Imagine the additional cost of sequestering the CO2 produced and then dealing with that product. This is propaganda nothing more. It will never work economically let alone environmentally. I am amazed this idea wasn’t shot down years ago. Pumping a product into the ground which weighs 5 times the original coal sounds like someone wants to cause a massive underground explosion of earthquake proportion.
    Lets get real. CCS should not be given any airplay at all. It is a hoax.

  4. Vic Avatar

    Readers might be interested in a new type of CO2 Direct Air Capture system being proposed by engineers at MIT. They claim it’s cheaper to deploy than existing proposals and uses up to an order of magnitude less energy to operate. No point in attaching it to a FF power station of course, but hopefully, negative carbon technologies just got a bit easier.

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