Global environmental challenges
A Silver Bullet or just ‘Greenwash’?
Is this the silver bullet everyone’s been waiting for? Or just pie in the sky? Is capturing and storing carbon dioxide the technology breakthrough to cut greenhouse gas emissions without getting in the way of economic growth and industry’s “addiction” to fossil fuels? Or is it just a “greenwash” — a token gesture by some of the utilities responsible for so much of the world’s CO2 to try to persuade an increasingly green public that the great emitters are doing something to fight climate change?
Those are the questions that were hurled at Vattenfall executives on Tuesday when the Swedish-based utility opened the world’s first CCS plant in a small town south of Berlin called Schwarze Pumpe. The company believes it will be economically feasible before long to capture carbon, liquify it, and store it permanently on a large scale underground. This is only a small pilot plant producing enough power for a town of 20,000. But if it works, Vattenfall plans to build two conventional power plants 10 times larger in Germany and Denmark by 2015 and from 2020 they hope CCS will be a viable option for large-scale industrial use.
Proud as Vattenfall CEO Lars Josefsson and other executives from one of Europe’s largest utilities were at the inauguration of the 30-megawatt lignite-burning plant on Tuesday that cost 70 million euros and removes 95 percent of the CO2 emissions, they were nevertheless pummeled by journalists from across Europe wanting to know about the economics of it (and were told they’re not bad but could be better), whether they have the permits to store the CO2 underground (not yet but expected soon) and whether it was just more “greenwash” (a definite no).
“We take our responsibility seriously,” Josefsson said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with ‘greenwashing’.”
Economists like Nicholas Stern have placed a lot of hope in carbon capture. He told a group of journalists in Berlin last year that with coal so abundant and cheap around the world, it is hard to imagine any solution to climate change without CCS.
But what do the economics of CCS look like? Vattenfall said that CCS will at first cut the efficiency rate from 46 and 43 percent (for hard coal and lignite) by about 10 percentage points — making it roughly 25 percent more expensive to produce the same amount of energy. But they are confident that those efficiency levels would soon be back to their original level before long.
“We aim to show that it’s feasible, that it’s economical,” said Josefsson. “It’s a long-term project. We’ll have to invest many, many billions for the next step. Vattenfall is prepared to invest many billions. We will make electricity clean.”
Vattenfall said the costs of the investment will pay for itself as prices for EU-wide trading in emission rights rise. Tuomo Hatakka, head of the Germany-based Vattenfall Europe unit, said the break-even point is between 30 and 35 euros per tonne — the current price is just under 30 euros but expected to rise.
“It shouldn’t lead to any additional costs,” said Josefsson. “We’re taking the fight against climate change seriously in Europe and we’ve got a market. This is only the start of a long process. There are incentives to solve the problem.”
So is carbon capture a silver bullet — or just ‘greenwash’? I’m not sure it’s the silver bullet, not yet anyhow. But the 70 million euros they spent on Schwarze Pump isn’t chicken feed either. Seeing some tangible steps taken like in Schwarze Pumpe is certainly a better way to spend a day than listening to politicians talking about what needs to be done.