Opinion
Climate Action

We need to start treating carbon capture and storage the same way as hydrogen. Here's why

Pipes run through Shell's new Quest Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada, October 7, 2021.  REUTERS/Todd Korol

The benefits of carbon capture and storage technology need to be reconsidered. Image: Reuters/Todd Korol

Aliaksei Patonia
Research Fellow in Commercial Hydrogen Development, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies
Kristina Fürst
Expert in Carbon Management, German Energy Agency
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  • Renewable energy sources are seen key way of combatting climate change, with many nations increasing the share of green power in their energy mix.
  • Hydrogen is seen by many as the 'missing link' for decarbonization, but is challenging to handle and most of it is produced using fossil fuels.
  • Carbon capture and storage technologies can prevent carbon entering the atmosphere, while also helping decarbonize hard-to-abate industries.

Renewable energy sources have long been promoted as one of the main means to combat climate change, and many nations have taken steps to increase the share of ‘green power’ in their national energy mixes and electrify their economies.

While countries like Iceland have been able to source almost 100% of their electricity directly from renewables for many decades, others like Denmark managed to boost their renewable segment so that it could solely meet the national power demand for a couple of days.

Although such cases found many proponents among governments around the globe, they are unlikely to be replicable everywhere. Besides, and more importantly, moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind or solar will not enable us to fully achieve net zero.

Challenges of using renewables

One of the key reasons for this pessimism is the intermittent nature of many renewables. This means that, subject to changing weather conditions, wind and solar may produce electricity when we do not need it and may also not produce it when we require it desperately.

Although batteries have been suggested as a solution to this problem, their maximum capacity is still too small for country-scale operations. In these circumstances, we will still have to balance renewables with some form of energy that could be easily deliverable on demand. So far, we have done it mostly with fossil fuels, which are not applicable for a net-zero carbon scenario.

Another reason why renewables only are unlikely to save us is the fact that many industries are hard to electrify. In fact, such sectors as chemicals, steelmaking and cement production not only require energy, but also heavily rely on fossil fuels as their basic feedstock and source of heat crucial for these manufacturing processes.

This means that solutions other than electrification should be applied to address this challenge. In this context, hydrogen and carbon management technologies have so far been viewed as the most promising alternatives.

How can hydrogen help decarbonization?

Hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe, which does not produce carbon emissions when incinerated and can potentially be sourced in a carbon-free way – has been actively promoted as the 'missing link' of decarbonization.

Indeed, if generated from water through the process of electrolysis which is powered by renewable energy, it becomes a substance that could replace fossil fuels and exclude carbon emissions from the agenda. This is actually what makes this ‘green’ hydrogen so attractive in the eyes of national governments, businesses and the general public.

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In fact, at the moment, it seems to be the only large-scale decarbonization tool liked by all the governments committed to mitigating climate change. That is why a growing number of nations have been developing their national hydrogen strategies.

Nevertheless, just like any other decarbonization tool, hydrogen is not flawless. It is challenging to handle, and, though it has been safely used in industrial processes like refining and petrochemicals for many years, is highly flammable and, when it mixes up with air, it becomes explosive.

More importantly, at the moment, most globally generated hydrogen (around 96%) is produced from fossil fuels. In these circumstances, the build-up of the green hydrogen niche needs to be done at unprecedented speed and scale if it has to dominate the net-zero energy landscape by mid-century.

World hydrogen production by source
World hydrogen production by source Image: Adapted from the IEA

That is why decarbonization leaders like the EU have pledged to domestically produce 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2030. Although this looks like a historic bid, it is unlikely to be enough to reach the climate objectives by mid-century.

This has been acknowledged by the EU itself, which stated that a similar amount of ‘low-carbon’ hydrogen needs to be imported. But what is that low-carbon hydrogen and why would it complicate things?

Reconsidering carbon capture and storage

Although a clear definition of what low-carbon hydrogen means is still missing, there are not too many options to produce this substance without releasing the emissions into the atmosphere.

In fact, although several options have been discussed, large-scale generation of hydrogen in a carbon-neutral way has so far been associated mostly with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

CCS technologies enable carbon emissions to be generated in a ‘normal’ way, but rather than letting them be released into the atmosphere, they are then collected and isolated in underground geological formations.

Although large-scale CCS projects are still being mostly piloted, if proven successful, they could allow to produce hydrogen in a conventional manner – i.e. at a much larger scale than ‘green’ hydrogen – but with much reduced emissions released into the air.

In addition, carbon capture and storage applications can be used separately from hydrogen and could potentially decarbonize those ‘hard-to-abate’ sectors of steel, fertilizers and cement without involving a completely new fuel such as hydrogen.

However, while this is likely to be both technologically possible and economically feasible in the future, there is a major roadblock on the way – societal acceptance.

Critics argue that CCS is far from a long-term solution to actually reducing emissions with the aim of reaching net zero. There are also concerns about cost and potential leakages. Indeed, compared to hydrogen, CCS appears to be a more controversial topic in some of the nations actively promoting decarbonization.

For instance, over a decade ago, local communities in countries like Germany and Poland actively protested against the construction of CCS facilities close to their homes fuelled by the fears of potential leakages of ‘poisonous’ carbon, which resulted in such initiatives being withdrawn from the agenda altogether.

The result of such demonstrations in Germany led to the passing of a restrictive carbon capture law, which still means that until it is adapted in favour of carbon onshore or offshore storage, carbon capture and storage is practically banned on German territory.

Similarly, the Polish government decided to allow only demonstration CCS projects. Indeed, this position appears to be the dominant one in most EU countries, with some of them completely prohibiting underground storage of carbon and others allowing it subject to strict limitations, such as pilot or research projects.

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However, this is seemingly at odds with the fact that EU member states and many other countries are currently actively promoting hydrogen, which would also need to be stored underground, if used at a large scale.

Would this storage of a potentially explosive gas that can be ignited 20 times faster than petrol be safer than the storage of carbon? And would the storage of sufficient amounts of hydrogen even be possible, given that it can currently only be kept underground in unevenly distributed salt caverns that do not naturally occur everywhere?

Though these questions are yet to be answered, if these aspects are taken into account, carbon dioxide may look like a substance that is way easier to handle.

In this respect, if we truly need to reach net zero by 2050 with the current set of decarbonization technologies, we should probably reconsider our attitude towards carbon capture and storage, as well as the general way we consume energy.

The energy transition and decarbonisation challenges are so great that we will most likely need all solutions that would help us go net-zero carbon.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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