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BECCS: 10% of UK energy & net carbon cuts

By Dave Elliott

Bioenergy use combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) can deliver negative emissions, i.e. the net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, whilst producing energy in the form of electricity, heat, gaseous and liquid fuels, according to the UK Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) in a new study. Some have serious doubts about the cost, viability, impacts and reliability of large scale carbon capture and storage (CCS). Some also see it as a diversion from proper mitigation measures such as renewables and as just a way to allow for continued use of fossil fuels. But some environmentalists are keen on BECCS as a green option that might redeem CCS, if it works. Then again some environmentalists are unhappy with large scale biomass combustion, especially if using imported wood pellets, and so oppose BECCS.

The ETI is clearly a supporter of BECCS. It says that ‘negative emissions provide important emissions ‘headroom’ as the UK transitions towards a low-carbon energy system, since the additional ‘breathing space’ afforded by negative emissions reduces the need for rapid emissions reductions in sectors such as heavy duty transport and aviation which are more difficult and expensive to decarbonise’. It reports that ‘evidence from ESME, the ETI’s peer-reviewed energy system modelling environment, suggests that by the 2050s, BECCS could deliver c.-55 million tonnes of net negative emissions per annum (approximately half our emissions target in 2050), whilst meeting c.10% of the UK’s future energy demand. This would reduce the cost of meeting the UK’s 2050 GHG emissions target by up to 1% of GDP’. It claims that BECCS deployment is achievable by 2030, since all major components of a BECCS system have now been demonstrated or ‘proven’ individually – significantly de-risking the full-system deployment’.

To back this up the ETI notes that ‘the scale of biomass in the UK today, and in particular its use in a large unit like Drax, produces CO2 in sufficient quantities to deliver economies of scale in the capture of CO2. On a smaller, but still important scale, the UK has the opportunity to fit CCS to existing bioethanol plants, as has been demonstrated in the USA’. It goes on, ‘although the UK has no large CCS projects, large scale underground storage in North Sea aquifers has been practised in Norway since 1996, and by 2017, 22 plants globally will be running CCS technology applications, spanning post-combustion and pre-combustion coal, natural gas steam reforming, bioenergy (corn to ethanol), and applications from power, gas production, refining, chemicals and steel’. 

As an example of current progress ETI reports that ‘TOKYO-Toshiba Corporation has recently been selected by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment to construct a carbon capture facility to capture over 500 tonnes of CO2 a day from the Mikawa Power Plant (49 MW). The plant aims to be operational by 2020, and it will become the world’s first power plant capable of capturing carbon from a biomass power plant, and therefore the first to deliver ‘negative emissions’’.

In terms of the UK, the report says that there is sufficient biomass resource available for a major BECCS programme: a consistent biomass feedstock planting rate of 30,000 hectares per annum, combined with moderate imports’, would be enough ‘to keep the UK on the required trajectory for meeting the 2050s bioenergy and negative emissions targets’. It says that 10% of energy, 130 TWh/yr final energy output, requires approximately 190 TWh/yr of biomass feedstock (a combination of imported and domestically grown feedstock and ~ 45 TWh of waste feedstock).’ It goes on: ‘Our analysis indicates that the additional domestic biomass feedstock production needs could be met by converting 1.4 million hectares of UK agricultural land to bioenergy crops and forestry by the 2050s.’  It adds: ‘Work completed for us by ADAS suggests that with small changes to farming practices and food waste, there could be sufficient spare land in the UK agricultural system to meet this requirement of 1.4 million hectares of land without impacting existing levels of UK food security’.

In terms of storage capacity, ETI says thatmore than 1.5 Gte worth of stores could be fully operational by 2030. This is enough to service around 10 GW of power generation and other industrial sources fitted with CCS’. It does note that it is important to site new power stations with CCS close to storage sites, so as to avoid pipeline costs (e.g. ‘on populous estuaries close to potential offshore stores, such as Thames, Mersey, Tees and Humber’), but says that ‘the discounted lifecycle costs (10% discount, 2015) for this offshore pipeline and storage would add only c.£5-£9/MWh to the UK electricity price’.

However, it is all far from a done deal, with the UK’s £1bn CCS competition abandoned, the ETI says ‘significant support is needed over the next 5-10 years to demonstrate a commercial deployment of BECCS technology and the wider biomass and CO2 storage supply chain in the UK’.

There may be some money available, at least for CCS. The Government may have abandoned the £1bn CCS competition, but it has invested around £11m since 2015 on a range of carbon capture projects, supporting R&D in CO2 storage, and feasibility studies, and its Energy Entrepreneurs Fund has provided about £1.6m in support to innovative carbon capture technologies. Phase 5 of this Fund opened to bids in October 2016, with an additional £9m of funding that is open to carbon capture projects.

There is certainly a lot of pressure to do something on CCS. A recent report from the Parliamentary Advisory Group on Carbon Capture and Storage set out to address ‘the policy disconnect that arises between the previous Government’s cancellation of the carbon capture and storage competition on grounds of cost and the advice it received from a number of independent policy bodies that CCS was an essential technology for least cost decarbonisation of the UK economy to meet international agreements’.

The Group’s report insisted that CCS ‘is an essential component in delivering lowest cost decarbonisation across the whole UK economy’. It claimed that ‘current CCS technology and its supply chain are fit for purpose. There is no reason to wait for international projects or for technological progress in either the components or overall system of CCS. Because lead times are long planning, regulatory & construction early decisions are needed.’ And ‘UK action on CCS now will deliver lowest cost to the consumer. There is no justification for delay. Heavy costs will be imposed on current & future UK consumers by a continued failure to enact an effective CCS policy’.

However, the advisory group was less than convinced about BECCS: they talk of ‘significant reservations of many about the availability and sustainability of bioenergy at the required scale’.  But they do note that BECCS plays ‘a very significant role in both 2C and 1.5C modelling scenarios for global warming which are consistent with, for instance, the Paris Agreement’. So though the advisory group’s main concern seems to be to enable the continued use of fossil fuel, with CCS seen as having the potential ‘to be safely storing 15% of current UK CO2 emissions by 2030 and up to 40% by 2050’, for good or ill, BECCS may yet get a look in, at least at the margins, and longer term.

That also seems to be the conclusion of the study of potential ‘disruptive technologies’ in the energy sector by Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Institute: CCS was still uncertain and while BECCS could be important, it probably would not start impacting globally until later on.

It’s also interesting that, in a new report challenging the UK support system for biomass and the use of forest wood, Chatham House says that ‘the reliance on BECCS of so many of the climate mitigation scenarios reviewed by the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] is of major concern, potentially distracting attention from other mitigation options and encouraging decision makers to lock themselves into high-carbon options in the short term on the assumption that the emissions thus generated can be compensated for in the long term’.

Clearly then, views differ – as they do on many aspects of biomass. I’ll be looking at that in my next post.

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