Doubts raised about future of CCS for power sector as renewables continue to fall in price
An opinion piece on the Euractiv website has covered the views on carbon capture and storage of a number of energy sector leaders who believe that “the game is over” for CCS in the power sector. The problem, unsurprisingly, is cost – with renewable technologies getting cheaper and cheaper, it may be more economically efficient to install renewable power generation capacity rather than fitting fossil fuel-fired power plants with CCS, even to generate the same total power. Auke Lont, the CEO of the Norwegian power grid operator Statnett is of this view, as is the CEO of Enel, Francesco Starace, who said early this year that “CCS has not been successful. It doesn’t work, let’s call it what it is – it is simply too expensive, too cumbersome, the technology didn’t fly.” These statements relate to the power sector, and not the steel, paper and cement making sectors where the technology is still mostly seen as essential, but according to Euractiv, doubts are also being raised about CCS for the steelmaking sector. With much research going into CCS across the world, and bodies such as the IEA and IPCC seeing the technology as vital to combatting climate change, it would be a remarkable outcome, but it must be considered a distinct possibility. It would seem, however, that for fossil fuel-fired plants already built and in operation, the economics of renewable power generation technology would have to be such that it would be cheaper to install equivalent renewable capacity (taking account of the differing capacity factors) plus associated battery storage than to retrofit the plant with CCS and pay for the fuel. Furthermore, with calls for ‘negative emissions’ programs, such as biofuel firing with CCS, to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, there would need to be alternative technologies to meet the same ends.
Carbon Tracker research describes coal in Europe as being in a “death spiral”
Research by the Carbon Tracker group has found that 54% of Europe’s 619 coal-fired power plants are currently making a loss, with low electricity prices, stagnant demand, and environmental regulations all taking their toll. The situation is such that coal in Europe is described as being in a “death spiral”, with Carbon Tracker’s research suggesting that by 2030, with stricter air pollution regulations and higher carbon pricing, around 97% of plants will be loss-making. Furthermore, by the mid-2020s, it is expected to be cheaper to build new wind and solar farms than to continue to run coal-fired plants, although it is unclear, and unlikely, if this includes capacity factors and battery storage. It is also unclear if grids would be reliable without coal over the next decade, with Spain already taking action to avoid the closure of some of its coal-fired plants for this reason. Proponents of coal-firing also cite another benefit – that of providing competition to gas to avoid any price gouging. In any event, it seems sure that government policy over the coming years will be vital to the fate of the European coal industry. This in turn appears likely to be strongly affected by reliability of supply – if blackouts were to begin to occur under scenarios of little baseload generation capacity, popular outcry may force the hand of governments to ensure the survival of baseload capacity. In a way, then, it may in fact be the performance of renewables at a grid level that determines the fate of coal over the next decade.
South Korea to sharply increase renewables, but coal and nuclear will continue to provide bulk of electricity to 2031
South Korea’s government has drafted a revision to its national energy strategy, with an intention to expand renewable and gas-fired power generation over the next 15 years to reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear and coal-fired power. The focus, however, remains highly pragmatic. According to a spokesman for the energy ministry, “the existing plan is focused on stable power supply and economics”, with the changes being introduced “to improve safety and environmental aspects”. Under the plan, the current combined nuclear and coal output of around 75% of the country’s total will reduce to around 60% by 2031, with renewables to increase to a 20% share from the present 6%. A slight rise in gas-firing is planned. Electricity demand is expected to grow at 1.3% annually to a total of just over 100 GW, which interestingly is 11% below the previous forecast, made in 2015. The plan is to be opened to a public hearing on 26 December.
Hungary moves to reduce foreign ownership of power generation capacity
Reuters has reported on moves by Hungarian businessman Lorinc Meszaros’s moves to buy, in conjunction with Czech power company EP Power Europe, a majority stake in the 950 MW Matrai power plant, Hungary’s second largest power station. Matrai is currently majority owned by Germany’s RWE and EnBW, who have been looking for a buyer since April this year. According to the report, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long wished to reduce foreign ownership of Hungary’s power sector, and it appears this may be a prime opportunity to do so. Regulatory approval must be granted before the deal is finalised.
Solidia Technologies pioneering low-carbon cement
An article on the Quartz website has looked at a promising means of cement production which its developer claims is up to 70% less CO2 intensive over its lifecycle. Solidia Technologies has been developing the alternative method since 2008, spinning out of research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. It revolves around the use of a synthetic form of wollastonite, a low-carbon alternative mineral to limestone that is naturally occurring and the subject of some mining, but not available naturally in sufficient quantities to be able to rival limestone as a feedstock. Solidia’s form of cement is less carbon intensive to produce, but then also absorbs CO2 (more than limestone-based Portland cement) in order to properly cure, making it even less carbon intensive over its lifetime. It cures faster than Portland cement, and exceeds building standards, as verified by the US Department of Energy. Such is the interest in the product that LafargeHolcim is one investor, and has allowed the production of two 5,000 tonne batches of it using its existing, unmodified factories. However, more equipment will be needed to make concrete from Solidia’s cement, as the curing process for the concrete requires a CO2 rich environment. For in-situ casting of concrete, this may be problematic, though Solidia itself insists that it is not, and as pre-cast concrete makes up around 15% of the global market (and 50% in developed countries), there would be an entry point for the product. Many in the cement industry will be carefully observing Solidia to see if the company is able to persuade concrete makers to use its cement over the coming years. If so, the cement and concrete industries may be significantly decarbonised.
Acorn CCS project wins EU funding for feasibility study
A carbon capture and storage project planned for the north-east of Scotland has received EU funding for a feasibility study. The Acorn CSS project aims, initially, to capture CO2 from the St Fergus gas processing terminal, transport it to under the North Sea, and then store it permanently under the sea bed. Further stages of the project would see the same storage and transport infrastructure being used by other industrial facilities. The feasibility study will seek to address commercial and regulatory issues, developing a business model, while also identifying a suitable storage location. The project is being carried out by Pale Blue Dot Energy with project partners Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage (University of Aberdeen, University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University), University of Liverpool, Bellona (Norway) and Radboud University (The Netherlands).
Baumgarten gas explosion kills one, injures at least 18
An explosion at the Baumgarten Natural Gas Station in eastern Austria has caused one fatality and at least 18 injuries. The explosion occurred at around 8:45am local time on 13 December, the cause of the blast unknown and under investigation (at the time of writing) by the owner and operator, Gas Connect Austria. Italy declared a state of emergency following the incident, as Baumgarten is an important supplier of gas to the country, and supplies were interrupted after the site was shut down. Gas prices soared 215% to their highest ever level in Italy, at €75/MWh (US$89), while prices also rose 35% in Britain, even though supply to Britain was not threatened. Operation at Baumgarten resumed the following day.
Successful hack of industrial facility signals future cybersecurity dangers for power generation sector
An industrial facility believed to be in the Middle East has been the subject of a successful hacking attack, according to a report from Reuters. Though the location, facility and even industry of the victim was not disclosed by cyber-security firms, some detail of the attack was released. The Triconex safety software and technology, developed by Schneider Electric SE and widely used in the energy industry, was compromised by the hackers, the first time a safety system at an industrial facility has been known to be breached. The attack used malware to take remote control of a workstation, with the hackers then attempting to reprogram control equipment. In the event, some of the controllers entered a fail-safe mode, protecting the facility, but forcing it to shut down. The incident will be a sharp reminder of the cybersecurity dangers faced by power generators and another signal that the cyber realm is likely to be a key battleground in any future geopolitical conflicts.
LSE research argues carbon pricing now more important than subsidies for decarbonisation
Research from the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment has argued that, with falling costs for renewable energies, it is now carbon pricing which is the most important factor in driving decarbonisation. Soon, according to the research, renewables will no longer need subsidies to be cost competitive with fossil fuel-fired power generation. A price on carbon is in place in the EU through the Emissions Trading System, but it does not cover transport and waste, and the price has been too low in recent years to incentivise power producers to decarbonise. To reach the EU goal of a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, the carbon price will need to rise, and perhaps be applied to other industries. Economists believe that it is a more efficient way of achieving decarbonisation because it allows greater flexibility in the choice of means to decarbonise, rather than the ‘picking winners’ approach of subsidies for specific technologies.
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