Could this be the best-kept secret of climate solutions?
Here’s how your CO2 emissions can be stored under the ocean
This waste incineration chimney in Oslo releases as much CO2 per year as 200,000 cars. But we don’t have to let this gas billow into our atmosphere and destroy our climate. Now we can store it safely, three kilometres below the North Sea.
“It’s about 900 degrees in here, so it’s plenty toasty,” says Jannicke Gerner Bjerkås, pointing toward the red-hot furnace.
They burn about 1000 tonnes of household waste here every day here at the Klemetsrud energy recovery plant in Oslo. The rubbish comes from households all over Norway and elsewhere in Europe, and from all kinds of businesses and construction sites.
This way, waste that cannot or should not be recycled is used to provide heat for the surrounding neighbourhood, as well as electricity—a process called Combined Heating and Power, or CHP for short.
Nevertheless, the incineration process itself emits around 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, which is about 14 percent of the capital city’s total CO2 emissions. That makes it the single largest emission in Oslo, corresponding to roughly 200,000 vehicles per year.
“The smoke that comes out of our chimney is mostly water vapour, but it does do contain a lot of CO2. We want to do something about that,” says Bjerkås, head of CCS in Fortum Oslo CHP.
ENORMOUS VOLUMES: When your waste is incinerated, greenhouse gas emissions are sent straight up into the atmosphere. This crane at Klemetsrud lifts around 3-5 tonnes of waste and drops it into the furnaces. A whopping 1000 tonnes of trash are incinerated at the energy recovery plant every single day. PHOTO: VG PARTNERSTUDIO
“Electricity from renewable energy is a good thing but won’t be enough on its own. CCS will be an important part of the effort to achieve the UN climate targets.”
Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh
We must capture and store far more CO2
The increasing proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere is a major climate problem and leads to world temperature increase. Around the globe, solutions are therefore being developed to reduce emissions of CO2.
Most people have heard about wind turbines and solar panels, but without carbon capture and storage (CCS) it will be impossible to achieve our climate targets. And yet it’s a climate solution that very few people have heard about.
“Producing more electricity from renewable energy is a good thing, but that won’t be enough on its own,” says Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh.
“We will have to capture and store far more CO2 if we want to curb climate change in time. CCS will be an important part of the effort to achieve the UN climate targets,” he says.
In simple terms, carbon capture and storage deals with removing CO2 from emission sources and storing it permanently underground, so that it is not released to the atmosphere.
If we are to succeed in achieving UN climate targets, the world must capture and store six billion tonnes of CO2 per year from 2050, according to the The International Energy Agency (IEA).
A recently published status report from the IEA shows that developments within wind and solar energy are progressing well, but that we are far behind schedule when it comes to CCS.
Why is this?
“Right now, carbon capture and storage is too expensive and unprofitable for many players. It hasn’t been possible to commercialise CCS, or create a full-scale value chain for CCS,” says professor Haszeldine.
VAST STORAGE POTENTIAL: There is plenty of room under the seabed to store 200 years’ worth of global CO2 emissions, at the current level.
Photo: Kjetil Alsvik
Equinor has been storing CO2 here for more than 20 years
“Behind us we take in natural gas with a high CO2 content,” says Sverre Overå, while the wind blows and the waves pound against the platform in the North Sea.
Equinor’s project director is standing by the railings on Sleipner, where the company has captured and stored more than 20 million tonnes of CO2 since 1996, equivalent to the annual emissions from 10 million cars.
“CO2 is removed from the natural gas and sent 1000 metres under the platform, all the way down to the Utsira formation where it is permanently stored in small pores in the rock,” says Overå.
Why do you think more people haven’t heard about carbon capture and storage (CCS)?
“Everyone has heard about solar panels and wind turbines, but CCS isn’t something that people can do by themselves. For example, you can’t have CCS on your car or your house. It will take a considerable industrial commitment, which is only relevant for the major emission sources. In many ways, you could say that this is the great unknown climate solution,” says Overå.
On Sleipner, carbon capture and storage started after CO2 tax was introduced. This provided an economic incentive for storing CO2 instead of releasing it to the atmosphere. Norway’s tax on fossil energy is among the highest in the world, while large parts of the world continue to pollute “for free.”
SLEIPNER: – CCS is very important. Energy sources that cannot be electrified have CO2 emissions that need to be addressed. That’s what we do here on Sleipner,” says Sverre Overå, project director in Equinor. Photo: VG Partnerstudio
Intending to develop the world’s first infrastructure for CO2 storage
Now Equinor, together with Shell and Total, wants to develop a storage facility for CO2 on the Norwegian shelf. This will be the world’s first storage facility that can receive CO2 from various industrial sources. The project has been dubbed “Northern Lights”.
“The idea is to capture CO2 from significant emission sources on land, transport it by ship to a terminal northwest of Bergen, transport it by pipeline out to the North Sea, and then inject it 3000 metres beneath the seabed, where it will be stored,” says Overå.
Across the globe, there aren’t many CCS projects currently underway. The few examples usually just involve capturing CO2 from a single plant.
“No other projects are looking into building an infrastructure like we are doing, with a flexible transport solution using ships that can reach ports all over Europe, and a receiving terminal with a storage facility. This is a solution for many industries wanting to reduce emissions, but who have no way of storing their CO2. This will truly be full-scale CCS,” says Overå enthusiastically.
INFRASTRUCTURE: What full-scale CCS will look like. Illustration: Equinor
“We have, and we will continue to pay part of the bill. However, it is not currently profitable to develop these kinds of projects. As is also the case for development of renewable energy, government support is needed in the early stages to realise the infrastructure and build up a market. In time, we would like to see a moderate price for handling CO2 on behalf of others. The ambition is clear that this will ultimately become an industry that can support itself,” says Overå.
Could subsea CO2 storage be dangerous?
One of the questions about carbon storage that is often asked of experts is whether it is dangerous to store CO2 in the subsurface. Many people wonder whether this could result in leaks or earthquakes.
Professor Haszeldine says that storing CO2 is a very safe way to reduce climate change.
“CO2 occurs naturally in large underground deposits in many places around the world, where it has been stored geologically for many millions of years. So we know that nature can store vast volumes of CO2 in a very safe way and for a very long time,” he says.
Haszeldine also says that we know quite a lot today about what kinds of geological formations are suitable for CO2 storage, and where they are located around the world. Haszeldine also notes that we have instruments that can measure movements in the earth’s crust that are 10,000 times fainter than anything that people can detect on land.
How much storage space is available in the subsurface? Enough to achieve the climate targets?
“Yes, definitely. Worldwide, there is enough room for more than 200 years of storage at current global emissions levels. The North Sea has been very extensively explored, and Norway can store 1000 years of its emissions right there,” he says.
Intending to spread the technology to the rest of the world
There was good news for the Klemetsrud recovery facility in August 2018 when the Government gave the go-ahead for a grant to start a pilot project for CO2 capture.
They have previously completed tests showing that more than 90 percent of the CO2 in the flue gases can be captured. And when the gigantic CO2 storage facility is in place, they will be able to transport it to the North Sea where it can be stored.
What will be the impact of capturing nearly 400,000 tonnes of CO2 from Klemetsrud?
“For Oslo, this is an essential project in order to meet the city’s ambitious climate goals. In global terms, our emissions are no more than a drop in the ocean compared with total emissions, but our project is also important in a global context because it is a pioneering project,” says Bjerkås, and adds: