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Thursday, January 10, 2013

SA and world urged to accelerate carbon-capture efforts



South Africa, which relies primarily on coal to produce most of its electricity, is set to raise the profile of its carbon capture and storage (CCS) initiatives in 2013, amid a call from the International Energy Agency (IEA) for a renewed focus on the deployment of CCS as part of international efforts to reduce climate-altering carbon emissions.

The agency warned early in January that the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to only 2 °C by 2050 will be impossible without CCS, which it sees as a necessary addition to other low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency improvements.

During 2012, Cabinet endorsed the ‘Carbon Capture and Storage Roadmap’ developed by the South African Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage as one of the options for mitigating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – South Africa emitted about 600-million tons of CO2 in 2010.

The endorsement followed a voluntarily commitment to reduce the country’s CO2 emissions by 34% in 2020 and by 42% in 2025, on condition that South Africa received technological and financial support.

It was also made despite ongoing skepticism over the role of CCS, which critics view as an unhelpful diversion of attention away from accelerated renewable-energy efforts. Some environmental groups even see CCS as a cynical attempt to prolong the use of fossil fuels.

However, the IEA has listed the CCS progress as a key 2013 priority, cautioning that high costs and an absence of incentives will continue to delay implementation of this “critical element to limiting climate change”.

Such incentives are likely to be required owing to the costs of locating and developing a storage site, preparing the infrastructure to pipe the CO2 and installing the equipment required to capture and compress CO2 from various flue-gas streams.

Fossil fuels, the agency says, are still likely to provide 45% of the world’s primary energy demand by 2050, even under its 2-degree temperature-rise scenario, also dubbed ‘2DS’.

CCS, which aims to capture, transport and store the CO2 in deep geological formations, could provide 20% of the carbon cuts needed by 2050 under 2DS, but would require the roll-out of 3 000 plants.

In fact, the IEA’s ‘World Energy Outlook 2012’ asserts that, without significant deployment of CCS, more than two-thirds of current proven fossil-fuel reserves cannot be commercialised in a 2DS world before 2050.

“Fossil-fuel CCS is particularly important in a world that currently shows absolutely no sign of scaling down its fossil fuel consumption,” IEA Carbon Capture and Storage Technology Unit head Juho Lipponen adds.

A recent Economist magazine article notes that China’s demand for energy has been a key factor driving demand for fossil fuels in recent years, with the Asian giant having overtaken the US as the world’s biggest electricity producer in 2011. But other developing economies, including South Africa, are also pursuing coal-based energy solutions and India could be poised to surpass the US as the world’s second-largest coal consumer by 2017.

In such a context, Lipponen argues that action on storage-site screening and development is a key priority to ensure that approval processes for such sites do not impede new CCS installations.

But governments will also need to assess what role CCS will play in their future energy mixes, while practical incentives will also be required to stimulate projects. The IEA itself is revising its CCS technology roadmap, with the new version expected during the first half of 2013.

In South Africa, a Carbon Atlas has been published and preparations are under way, in line with the Cabinet-endorsed roadmap, for the first “test injection” by 2016.

Should the concept be proven, the next step would be the development of a demonstration plant by 2020 as a precursor to a commercial-scale facility by 2025.

In February, the European Commission (EC), along with Eskom and EcoMetrix Africa, will host a conference in Johannesburg at which information will be shared on some of the CCS advances being made in Europe under the so-called Octavius research programme.

Octavius, which began in March last year, is a five-year EC-funded project falling under the seventh framework programme. It is coordinated by public-sector research and training centre IFPEN with the intention of demonstrating energy-efficient CO2 capture processes at industrial pilot plants in Europe.

EcoMetrix Africa director Lodewijk Nell tells Engineering News Online that the focus on carbon-capture solutions is viewed as appropriate, as capture is an expensive step within a chain that also involves transportation and storage.

Nell says the aim of the conference idea is to share lessons with South African stakeholders arising from three pilot projects so as to begin extrapolating what those results could mean in the South African context.

EcoMetrix Africa is already using some of the results to develop a theoretical model for the domestic application of a capturing solution premised on using an amine solution to absorb the CO2 – a process being piloted at an E.ON facility in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, the IEA acknowledges that the adoption of CCS has been slow. But it says the good news is that the required technologies have been proven across a range of industries over several decades. In fact, the Global CCS Institute lists more than 70 large-scale integrated CCS facilities across the world in various stages of development.

“It is critical that as many of these projects as possible reach fruition this decade to perfect the technology and show CCS’s value and safety to the public,” the agency concludes.

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