By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News, Germany
Big questions still hang over CCS technology overall
Beneath the gargantuan grey boiler towers of Schwarze Pumpe power station which pierce the skies of northern Germany, a Lilliputian puzzle of metal boxes and shining canisters is about to mark a moment of industrial history.
This mini power plant is a pilot project for carbon capture and storage (CCS) - the first coal-fired plant in the world ready to capture and store its own CO2 emissions.
Next week the pilot - an oxyfuel boiler - will be formally commissioned.
A cloud of pure oxygen will be breathed into the boiler. The flame will be lit. Then a cloud of powdered lignite will be injected.
The outcome will be heat, water vapour, impurities, nine tonnes of CO2 an hour, and a landmark in clean technology.
Because the CO2 will then be separated, squashed to one 500th of its original volume and squeezed into a cylinder ready to be transported to a gas field and forced 1,000m below the surface into porous rock where it should stay until long after mankind has stopped worrying about climate change.
This is the technology once lavishly described by the former UK Chief Scientist Sir David King as "the only hope for mankind".
The plant operators, Vattenfall, have worked furiously for two years to get the pilot running.
"We are very proud - we think this is the future for coal," says Vattenfall's Hubertus Altmann.
They funded the 70m-euro project themselves because they wanted to lead a technology they believe solves the conundrum of providing energy security through plentiful coal supplies whilst avoiding the CO2 emissions officially blamed for climate change.
'Too expensive, too late'
Green-carpeted marquees are currently being furnished for the guests who will swell the applause at the grand inauguration.
But big questions hang over this technology overall, particularly over where the CO2 will be stored and who will pay the high costs of building and running the CCS plants.
Greenpeace is among the environmental groups expressing reservations.
"Our concern is that this technology is used to justify the construction of more coal power plants," says Tobias Munchmeyer.
"It's too expensive, it will come too late and it will divert money from the real solutions, renewable energies and energy efficiency."
The EU wants to see 10-12 full-scale power plants demonstrating CO2 capture within the next few years.
But although a number of other firms will soon join the race with pilot projects, no full-scale CCS coal plant has yet been commissioned.
The British government has promised a decision in October on how it will fund a full-scale CCS in the UK.
It hopes to avoid landing the taxpayer with the bill, but questions over CCS funding in Europe are as yet unresolved by the European Commission and the European Parliament.
The main options are:
- New rules mandating that all coal power plants must be fitted with CCS - ie industry and the consumer will pay
- Direct funding from the EU or member states (but member states do not want to pay)
- A feed-in tariff so generators get a premium for the amount of CO2 they sequester. Monitoring may be difficult
- Creating a new fund within the EU's Emission Trading Scheme (EUETS), which would give firms valuable carbon credits for every stored tonne of CO2. This would cost nothing but might undermine the CO2 market
- Setting a CO2 emission limit for all new power stations of, say, 350g of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity. This would make it impossible to build a coal plant which did not capture at least some of its CO2. This option is being pushed hard by UK Conservatives
Taking cash from EUETS auctioning. The permits for big firms to emit CO2 will be auctioned from 2013 (at the moment, they are given away). This will raise many billions - some of which could be diverted to fund CCS projects.
Can the Schwarze Pumpe effort be scaled up economically?
All the options would benefit from the sort of certainty over future carbon prices that would be provided by the successor to the Kyoto Protocol - but that is facing severe difficulties. And, meanwhile, industry is crying out for politicians to make an early decision so it can invest the billions that are needed.
"We need CSS urgently because the world is building a whole new generation of coal power plants and unless we find out whether this technology operates at scale and we can make these plants zero-carbon in the future, those will be a liability," says Nick Mabey of the think-tank e3g.
"The UK has talked a good game on this, it has said it wants to build a demonstration, but it's yet to show where the money is going to come from for the plants it wants built in Europe and worldwide."
Part of the problem is that the exact cost of large-scale CCS is unknown. This has left green groups uncertain and divided on the topic.
The latest estimates suggest CCS power will cost roughly the same as wind power - maybe 50% more than it does at the moment.
Coal supplies are plentiful; the issue is CO2 emissions
The firms providing the technology are doing their best to re-assure national treasuries that they can do it at a price which leaves coal competitive.
Philippe Joubert, of Alstom, who built the oxyfuel boiler at Schwarze Pumpe, said: "We will have a very good indication one or two years from now where we will have the first result of the bigger size demonstration plant.
"Currently we are at 5 MW; it's not enough to set a price. In our business, the size is a real issue, and if you start to have a real market, probably the price will drop."
The real test of CCS, though, is not in Europe.
The global CO2 savings many scientists believe are needed to control global warming are only likely to happen if politicians in rich nations are ready to ignore high energy prices, put up the price of their cheapest fuel through CCS - and then help developing countries to do the same.