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CCS – should the answer be yes?

Posted 16/03/2012 by sevans

New UK energy and climate change minister Ed Davey has had no time to lose getting to grips with some of the challenges of his new role. First, he will have had to familiarise himself with the ‘Energese,’ as one Daily Telegraph commentator wryly observed last week – the impenetrable lingo of energy and climate change guaranteed to befuddle and bemuse all but the rarefied bunch of specialists resident in this sector. Expressions such as ‘carbon floor mechanisms’, ‘carbon offsets’, emissions trading schemes’ and ‘distributed energy networks,’ to mention just a few.

This week, Davey has set his mind to tackling the equally linguistically and technically challenging topic of carbon capture and sequestration – otherwise more conveniently abbreviated as CCS. CCS, according to its proponents including energy major Royal Dutch Shell, ‘is currently the only technology available to mitigate emissions from large-scale fossil fuel use’. Essentially, it involves taking the greenhouse gas CO2 emitted from fossil fuel powered stations and burying it in geological repositories deep below the world’s oceans.

On Monday 12 March, Davey announced a £20m injection of government cash available for research to further the development of CCS technologies, including projects for example to improve the recovery of CO2 from waste gas streams. ‘Far from something we can’t afford, I think this [CCS] is something we can’t afford not to do,’ Davey told Channel 4 News this week, pointing out that in the long term pioneering CCS should lead to more job creation and exports for the UK economy.

But CCS technology is far from proven. Government funding for a CCS demonstration project has not yet been forthcoming, while a competition to bid for part of £1bn of funding to build a demonstration plant by 2020 has thus far failed to select a successful candidate. A government announcement is expected soon, however time is running out on Shell’s offer to build a demo plant, with the planned decommissioning of the necessary pipeline by the end of this year if it does not get the go-ahead. 

So is CCS worth all the effort and expense – not to mention all of the risks? Davey appears to think so, but will taxpayers who will have to stump up for the technology be equally enthusiastic? Meanwhile, the big worry as with so many alternative energy technologies is the issue of safety - not least what would happen if the CO2 managed to escape from the undersea repository?

Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy editor

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