Energy Insights – Vaclav Smil on Carbon Capture & Storage

Energy Insights is a series where we pull out key points from energy articles around the web. This is not a full summary but a taste – if you like the ideas then please pick up a copy of the book.

Previous posts in this series include A Look at Wind and Solar and the IEA 2016 World Outlook.

This post is from the excellent book Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate by Vaclav Smil.

In the chapter ‘Technical Fixes’, Smil discusses Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS).  I would like to highlight two insights that I found fascinating.

The size of infrastructure required to handle CO2

Smil calculates that to sequester 15% of 2008 emissions would require handling around 6 billion m3 of CO2.  In the same year total global crude oil extraction was around 4.6 million m3.

For me this puts into perspective how unrealistic large scale CCS is.

The amount of time and capital it would take to develop a system on the same scale as today’s crude oil extraction is immense.  To think that building such a massive system would still leave over 80% of our emissions untouched is a killing blow to CCS as anything more than a small part of the decarbonisation solution.

Projections for future price declines

Smil also comments on the potential for future cost declines of CCS technology.

Smil points out that we often make the mistake of assuming that the impressive cost declines seen in electronics will occur in other industries.  Producing advanced microprocessors is an automated process with low labour and material inputs.

This is contrasted with the massive amounts of labour and materials required for the construction and maintenance of CCS infrastructure (capture plants, pipelines, compressors, injection sites).  He also makes the point that materials needed to produce this infrastructure would put upward pressure on the cost of materials such as steel, aluminium, plastics and concrete.

Smil concludes:

Consequently we cannot exclude increased, rather than decreased, unit costs with a future mass adoption of carbon capture and storage.

I hope you enjoyed my short summary of two interesting insights made by the excellent Vaclav Smil.  His book Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate is one of his best and I cannot recommend it or any of his other works highly enough.