A future for carbon capture and storage?

The signals are everywhere: extreme heat, dry spells, stronger and more destructive hurricanes, infectious diseases.

Carbon capture and storage (Photo: European Commission, DG TREN)

These are a few examples of what our planet will continue to face if global warming is not tackled effectively. Drastically reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases is part of the solution. How do we actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make a bigger difference more quickly?

We  can make a difference to reduce our carbon footprint, by making our homes more energy efficient; walking, cycling or using public transport; recycling, re-using and avoiding unnecessary purchases; driving a hybrid or an electric car, or switching to green electricity.

We can offset our carbon footprint by funding an equivalent CO2 saving project, such as tree planting or – potentially - carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques.

What is carbon capture and storage?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines CCS as “a set of technologies that can greatly reduce CO2 emissions from new and existing coal- and gas-fired power plants and large industrial sources.”

Following capture from power plants or industrial processes, the compressed CO2 is transported – usually in pipelines – to appropriate locations such as abandoned oil and gas fields, deep saline formations and unminable coal seams with a minimum depth of 800 metres. In the next phase, the CO2 is injected into the storage zone through a well. The technologies used to inject the CO2 are similar to those used in the oil and gas industry.

Once the injection phase has been completed, the storage zone needs to be sealed to prevent the CO2 escaping up the well and potentially contaminating soil and groundwater. 

Potential alternative to renewables

While renewables such as solar and wind energy are bound to play an increasingly major role in future power generation, CCS technologies could contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions, thus allowing utilities to keep using fossil fuels to produce electricity. The CCS process is still at the pilot programme stage, but many industrial players are investing in research and development in this field. The main challenges they face are the complexity of industrial processes, and the security of underground carbon dioxide storage. Unless the high costs involved in its current development are seriously reduced, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for CCS to become a viable alternative to renewables in tackling CO2 emissions.

A role for the oil and gas sector?

In 2000 several major oil and gas companies formed the Carbon Capture Project, with the aim of helping “develop next generation technologies that will reduce the costs of CCS and make it a practical and cost-effective option for reducing or eliminating CO2 emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels”. The group still exists today, with three companies (BP, Chevron and Petrobras). Other initiatives have mushroomed over the last two decades, but all face the same problem: exorbitant costs.

According to a spokesperson for the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA), the oil and gas industry “has the ideal skill set for CCS thereby retaining an important workforce. Oil and gas producers also hold extensive knowledge of the subsurface, and they therefore have a role to play in sharing this knowledge with potential CCS project developers, ensuring that the best possible storage sites are chosen for CCS”.

There is another advantage in having the oil and gas sector involved, as it already has some of the equipment needed to develop CCS projects. It also has the skills, expertise and knowhow essential when working in hazardous areas.

Specific requirements for Ex areas

Many oil and gas companies rely on the IEC and one of its conformity assessment (CA) systems, IECEx, for the certification of their equipment and the personnel who operate the equipment.

Through its standardization and CA work, IEC has a solution for all sectors of industry that operate in hazardous environments.

The Commission has been at the forefront of Ex standardization for many years. IEC Technical Committee 31: Equipment for explosive atmospheres, and its subcommittees have developed series of international standards, IEC 60079, ISO/IEC 80079 (including ISO 80079-36 and ISO 80079-37), that cover all specific requirements for Ex electrical and non-electrical (mechanical) equipment and systems. They include general requirements and protection levels for apparatus used by all sectors that operate in hazardous environments

To make sure that the equipment they purchase meets the very strict requirements specified in the series of international standards, as well as those put in place by national or regional regulations and legislation, the Ex industry can rely on IECEx for testing and certification. IECEx also tests and certifies the repair and overhaul of Ex equipment through its service facilities scheme.

An IECEx certificate provides clear proof of compliance with international standards, an important assurance for anyone responsible for the safety of those working in such areas.

High level of safety for Ex workforce

IECEx has developed the IECEx certification of personnel competence scheme which assesses and certifies individuals working in potentially hazardous areas. It covers all safety aspects in Ex environments and to complement the IECEx certified equipment scheme,

The IECEx certificate of personnel competence (CoPC) provides independent proof that the certificate holder has the required qualifications and experience for working on electrical equipment located in hazardous areas and can implement IEC International Standards covering explosive atmospheres.

For the CoPC, competence is defined as "the ability to apply knowledge" rather than simply assessing knowledge. In this sense, the evaluation of persons includes assessing their ability to perform certain Ex-related tasks.

Together, standardization work by IEC TC 31 and IECEx certification provide a global comprehensive solution to address many of the risks found in Ex environments. Their work is ongoing, as new risks arise and new solutions are found. This could certainly prove to be a major advantage for companies that develop CCS projects.

Meeting energy demand while reducing CO2 emissions

With energy demand increasing, it is fair to assume that the deployment of renewables alone will not be sufficient, therefore a need for the efficient use of fossil fuels is bound to remain for some time.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more disruption to the energy sector than any other event in recent history. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2020 explores different scenarios from the crisis, with a particular focus on the next ten years.

In the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), in which COVID-19 is gradually brought under control in 2021 and the global economy returns to pre-crisis levels the same year, global energy demand rebounds to its pre-crisis level in early 2023.

The Delayed Recovery Scenario (DRS) predicts that global economy returns to its pre-crisis size only in 2023, and the pandemic ushers in a decade with the lowest rate of energy demand growth since the 1930s.

Prior to the crisis, energy demand was projected to grow by 12% between 2019 and 2030. Growth over this period is now 9% in the STEPS, and only 4% in the DRS.

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