The International Panel on Climate Change cites the widespread deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), bioenergy, and/or their combination (BECCS) as critical to the effort to limit 21st century warming due to CO2 release. The removal of CO2 from industrial effluent streams and storage in geological formations (CCS), is an established mitigation strategy that has the potential to decrease the rate at which CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. More importantly, it is a technology that can progress towards achieving negative emissions through coupling CCS with CO2 capture from electricity generation processes driven by the combustion of biomass (BECCS). BECCS is particularly appealing because it addresses how electricity could be produced in a carbon negative future.
In “Total Cost of Carbon Capture and Storage Implemented at a Regional Scale: Northeastern and Midwestern United States” (Schmetz, Hochman & Miller, 2020), the authors show that CO2 emissions may be stored at the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the US at $52 per ton, sourced from coal-fired plants and stored onshore in depleted oil and gas fields, and that the region also has the opportunities to store CO2 in onshore saline reservoirs for less than $60 per ton. Offshore storage is also an option, where the lowest total costs of CCS with storage in offshore saline reservoirs are just over $60 per ton. Storage offshore carries less risk and inconvenience and less potential for interference from populations than onshore storage. Offshore storage could also be required if formation pressures pose geological risk issues when injecting gigatons of supercritical CO2 into onshore formations. Emissions from natural-gas-fired plants are more expensive to capture per ton of CO2, making the lowest total costs over $80 per ton. This analysis suggests that a relatively small (15%) reduction in the total cost of CCS, would make CCS economically viable at a large-scale (~8 Gt CO2 over 30 years). Large-scale carbon storage may be additionally justified when coupled with BECCS technology. Similarly, demonstrating the feasibility of CCS could ultimately facilitate a pathway to BECCS.
Enacted in 2018 by the 115th United States Congress, the Section 45Q tax credits allot $50 per ton CO2 in tax credits for the permanent sequestration of CO2 in saline geological formations, as well as $35 per ton CO2 for EOR applications of CCS. To this end, the difference between representative total costs of CCS in the northeastern and midwestern United States and the threshold for profit motivated adoption is relatively small with the Section 45Q credits. With some technological improvement, adoption of CCS on a meaningful scale is possible in this region. With EOR and 45Q, CCS is viable, and has been undertaken on commercial scales at the Petra Nova-WA Parish Generating Station in Texas and the Boundary Dam plant in Canada. CO2 captured at both of these locations is transported to nearby oil fields and sold to enhance recovery. Governments can and should support these initiatives as sound environmental policy, like the U.S. and Canadian federal governments did for Petra Nova and Boundary Dam, providing $190 million and $240 million for those projects, respectively. Grant funding supporting the construction of commercial scale CCS projects, like the $190 million DOE supplied for the Petra Nova plant, incentivize first-of-a-kind construction that allows for learning, feasibility testing, and risk reduction for future commercial implementations. The 45Q tax credit incentive is a promising environmental policy initiative that encourages the adoption of CCS, the reduction of its cost over time because of learning-by-doing and could ultimately result in reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Considering the risk and long-term planning and capital commitment associated with constructing or renovating electricity generating infrastructure to serve CCS, the initiative to incentivize early CCS applications should also be coupled with a long-term commitment to the section 45Q credits. If the political support for CCS and the section 45Q credits appears fragile or short-lived, the potential repeal or expiration of these credits will become a hazard that adds to the risk prospective CCS adopters will need to account for. This short-term commitment coupled with the energy infrastructure risk paradigm could nullify the incentives for adoption of carbon capture technology that the Section 45Q tax credits were written to provide.
While the establishment of CCS must precede full-scale implementation of BECCS from a logical/technological perspective, concurrent pilot projects that demonstrate the feasibility of BECCS would represent significant advances. One such opportunity for CCS and BECCS could come in the form of power plants that are facing pressure to refuel or repower with more environmentally sound technology, such as the to-be-shuttered coal-fired B.L. England Generating Station in southern New Jersey. The plant was scheduled for a conversion to natural gas, but successful opposition to a pipeline link resulted in the cancellation of the project. A conversion to biomass, perhaps co-firing with coal, coupled with carbon capture could presumably ameliorate the environmental concerns that comprised the original basis for shuttering the plant. Additionally, this plant, and other legacy coal-fired locations, is served by a railroad infrastructure that would make transporting biomaterials to the plant for co-firing with coal a simple transition that does not require traversing the complexities of constructing new pipeline. This particular location, as well as a couple others on the U.S. East Coast, is well-suited for carbon storage with reservoirs available both below the power-plant and in nearby regions offshore that would encounter less citizen opposition. A project of this nature could represent an example of a catalytic “tangible, near-term success” for CCS, biomass, and/or BECCS. Application of BECCS technology in a state like New Jersey that lacks an oil and gas culture and history and is strongly opposed to further industrialization including pipelines might provide a viable test for addressing concerns about BECCS and aid in the transformation from coal to renewable, carbon negative BECCS technology.
Schmelz, William J., Gal Hochman, and Kenneth G. Miller. “Total cost of carbon capture and storage implemented at a regional scale: northeastern and midwestern United States.” Interface Focus 10.5 (2020): https://doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2019.0065