EU Referendum

Energy: CCS – the fantasy continues


There should a special place reserved in Hell for the government officials and politicians who waste public money by employing the likes of Ashley Ibbett, the Director of the Office of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

It is there, at DECC, that Mr Ibbett is the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for the CCS Commercialisation Programme, a multi-billion pound programme which aims to develop the first CCS-equipped power generation in the UK.

One could, of course, rail against the huge waste on expenditure on the CCS programme, but it is easier to direct one's loathing at a named individual – which is one of the reasons why we have politicians, to act as lightning conductors for public disaffection.

But in this case, Mr Ibbett has broken cover in the DECC blog with a gushing and ultimately dishonest report of a jolly to Canada (at taxpayers' expense).

This was to visit the Boundary Dam coal fired power plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, and witness "the historic moment" when Brad Wall, Premier of Saskatchewan, switched on a $1.4 billion coal-fired generator, fitted with CCS which will "capture more than 90 percent of the carbon dioxide that would otherwise escape to the atmosphere".

Says the gushing Ibbett, this demonstrates to sceptics that CCS can be deployed at scale. Several pilot scale capture facilities have operated in the past, but this is the first time carbon capture has operated on a commercial scale on a power station anywhere in the world.

Where the dishonesty comes in here is by omission. Ibbett is very keen to point out that the plant will capture around one million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – equivalent to taking 250,000 cars off Saskatchewan roads annually, he says – but is extremely reticent about revealing the costs of this fantasy project.

In fact, of the total $1.4 billion plant cost, the reports put the actual cost of upgrading the 30-year-old plant at $400 million, putting the CCS at a cool billion, tripling the capital needed to provide a modest 110MW generating capacity.

But the omissions don't stop there. The original plant was rated at 139MW so, for the expenditure of $1.4 billion, the Canadians have ended up with an overall reduction of 29MW capacity. Here, Ibbett's dishonesty is compounded by that of the plant operator, SaskPower, which tells Reuters that the loss of the 29MW capacity represents an "energy penalty" of around 20 percent.

We have to go to a local report, however, to find that the upgrade, including a new, high-efficiency boiler and steam turbine, cranked up the nameplate capacity to 162MW. But the CCS unit needs about 34 MW to operate, resulting in a "parasitic loss" of about 21 per cent of plant's power. Then, another 18MW are needed for other systems, reducing the net output to 110MW.

This cost of 52MW represents a loss not of 20 percent, as the plant operator is stating, but 32 percent, just one point short of a full third loss in capacity. Effectively, therefore, efficiency is cut by a third, for a tripling of the capital cost.

Going back to the Reuters report, it tells us that most modern ultra-supercritical coal power plants can achieve a thermal efficiency of up to about 45 percent. Retrofitting such a plant would reduce its efficiency to around 35 percent, a penalty of around 25 percent.

But for less-efficient supercritical and sub-critical power plants, with initial thermal efficiencies of less than 40 percent and in some cases less than 30 percent, the penalty could amount to 40 percent or even 50 percent of the plant's total electrical output.

Even a 20-30 percent energy penalty, Reuters says, is enormous and would radically affect the operations of coal-fired power plants in North America and the rest of the world if all power plants were retrofitted with CCS systems. Retrofitting all coal-fired plants in the United States would increase coal consumption by 400-600 million tonnes per year, or cut their net electrical output by 75-100GW, more than the peak demand of California.

Even then, there is no direct comparison between different sites. The majority of the captured gas from the Boundary Dam site is being sold to operator Cenovus for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) at its Weyburn oilfield. Cenovus has set up injection wells and built a 40 mile-long pipeline connecting Weyburn with Boundary Dam. Many CCS sites will be much further than 40 miles from an injection site.

Yet this is the technology we are paying Mr Ibbett to gush over, a madcap scheme that will massively increase the amount of fuel we will have to use in order to generate electricity at massively increased cost. Is this really what we want our civil servants to be doing?