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Europe to capture carbon

January 16, 2008 By Quirin Q Schiermeier This article courtesy of Nature News.

New power stations could be forced to store greenhouse-gas emissions.

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New power stations across Europe could be routinely fitted with carbon-dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technology within two years under a proposal by the European Commission.

Next week, the commission will propose a directive on geological storage of CO2 that would require all new fossil-fuel combustion plants to have “suitable space on the installation site for the equipment necessary to capture and compress CO2”. Builders of new plants would need to assess the availability of “suitable storage sites and the technical feasibility of CCS retrofit” before being granted construction licences. If the European Parliament and Council approve the proposal, it could become law in the European Union's 27 member states as early as 2009.

The proposed directive is a crucial step towards making industrial-scale CCS a reality.

Champions of CCS applaud the move as a milestone. “We would have hoped for a specific date for CCS to become mandatory,” says Paal Frisvold, chair of Bellona Europa, a Norway-based environmental group. “But even so, we do think that the proposed directive is an absolutely crucial step towards making industrial-scale CCS a reality.”

Experts think that CCS could reduce global CO2 emissions by one-third by 2050, if widely deployed. The proposal is in line with the European Commission's Strategic Energy Technology Plan, released last November, which prioritized development and commercial deployment of CCS to reduce emissions in Europe.

The proposed directive is the first attempt anywhere in the world to provide a comprehensive legal framework for industrial CCS activities, from storage-site selection, to environmental monitoring, to liability issues. And it ensures that CO2 captured and stored will be credited as not emitted under the European Union's mandatory emissions-trading scheme.

Economic incentives are vital to getting industry onboard, the European Commission believes. It hopes that if the costs of capturing CO2 become lower than the costs of releasing the gas into the atmosphere, industry will voluntarily switch to CCS technologies.

But the technology is not yet mature. Scrubbing CO2 from the gas stream is expensive and decreases the efficiency of coal-fired plants, so it is not yet commercially viable.

In a white paper also to be released next week, the commission will spell out measures and incentives for 'early movers' in the power industry. Among other things, financial aid worth up to e1.5 billion (US$2.2 billion) could be provided to encourage industry to set up 10–12 demonstration facilities in the next decade. However, commission officials say they doubt that more than four or five demonstration plants will end up being built.

At the moment, in Europe, only Norway and Britain have concrete plans for pilot plants. The Norwegian company Statoil currently operates Europe's only commercial CCS project, in the Sleipner West natural-gas field in the North Sea. “There is still resistance in the power industry, but the amount of scepticism is waning compared to five years ago,” says Frederic Hauge, vice-chair of the European Union's Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants, which was established by the European Commission in 2005 and comprises scientists, industry and non-governmental organizations.

Meanwhile, China and the United States also plan to build large-scale demonstration plants in the next 10 years. An Illinois-based site for FutureGen, a $1.5-billion public–private partnership to build a coal-fuelled near-zero-emissions power plant, was announced in December. This January, America began testing the safety, permanence and economic feasibility of storing large volumes of CO2 in geological structures at 22 test sites run by 7 regional partnerships, each comprising universities, state agencies and private companies.

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