Professor Mathieu Lucquiaud: ‘You cannot get to net zero without carbon capture and storage’

Interview with Mathieu Lucquiaud, Professor of Clean Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Sheffield (UK).

Mathieu Lucquiaud profileProfessor Lucquiaud’s research focuses on the role of CCS technologies in energy systems, their commercial deployment, and how to make them more cost effective, flexible and responsive. Professor Lucquiaud was the project lead of the co-funded EU project NEWEST-CCS that aimed to develop CCS technologies in the waste-to-energy sector. He has also launched the first Massive Open Online Course on CCS.

What is Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage?

Mathieu Lucquiaud: Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a family of technologies that can be applied across many sectors of the economy: electricity, as well as industrial emissions from cement, steel, chemicals, glass, hydrogen. The aim is to stop emitted CO2 getting into or returning to the atmosphere, using geological storage where the CO2 is stored in depleted oil and gas reservoirs or in deep underground formations of porous rocks.

Carbon utilisation is a different kettle of fish, where you try to create an added value from the CO2. In terms of climate change purposes, you have to be a bit careful with utilisation. You can look at utilisation in two ways. One way is where the CO2 is mineralised and does not return to the atmosphere, where you can make new types of cement or construction aggregates. The second way is to make other products – fuels, plastics. The CO2 in fuels is most likely to return to the atmosphere. In plastic, the fate is less clear. With CO2 utilisation, you are doing what renewables do, trying to displace the use of fossil fuels, which is a bit different from capturing and geologically storing CO2 so that it does not return to the atmosphere.

What is the current status and viability of CCUS in the EU?

Mathieu Lucquiaud: CCS, leaving aside utilisation, is purely climate change mitigation and it is absolutely necessary – you cannot get to net zero without CCS. There are industries that cannot be decarbonised without CCS, where CO2 is produced not from energy use, but as part of the process, when making cement, steel, chemicals.

The status of CCS worldwide is about 35 large scale projects in operation, capturing around 45 million tonnes of CO2. A lot of these projects started in the 1970s and 80s, not as climate projects but commercial projects where CO2 is used to increase oil field production, but nonetheless capturing and transporting CO2.

The majority of projects started more recently are probably driven more by climate purposes. In the last two-three years, there have been a lot of new developments in Europe; in the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany. We have seen a lot, maybe 200-250 CCS projects in the development phase. The industry has had a lot of hiccups in the last 10-15 years, but now we are in a phase of potential growth in the next five to 10 years. It’s good, but in terms of scale, it’s only a fifth of what we should be doing to ramp up the industry, we need to do more and faster.

What are the main challenges in the scaling-up and deployment of CCS?

Mathieu Lucquiaud: We know it works, we know we can do it. The first projects will not be perfect from the start, but the more we build, the more we learn. It’s an industry that requires public support to get started, because to unlock private investment you need to start the pump with public investment. There have been great achievements in wind and solar, but with CCS we are coming late to the party. There have been a lot of projects coming online in the last two years, but if we want to stick to a trajectory of emissions that is compatible with 1.5°C and avoid the worst outcomes of climate change, we have to do a lot more.

Why is CCUS controversial?

Mathieu Lucquiaud: It’s controversial for several reasons. There is a lot of opposition to CO2 storage onshore. In Europe, we want to use the pore space in the geology of the North Sea, injecting CO2 into sandstone formations. Sandstone is sand that has been compressed, it is like a very hard sponge – if you pour water into a bucket of dry sand and then scoop out the sand, there is no water at the bottom, it has gone into the pore space available in the sand. And that’s what we’re doing with sandstone. This requires an understanding of geology, which people may not have and so there may be a misunderstanding of what we are doing.

CCS is also controversial because there is a lot of opposition to oil and gas. It is perceived, rightly or wrongly (but probably rightly), that these companies have not done enough in the energy transition so far and so why should we let them continue making profits from fossil fuels? There is the view that we should stop using fossil fuels completely. But 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels and so it’s very hard to starve ourselves from that energy input. By 2050, we’ll continue to use fossil fuels when we want to reach net zero and we’ll probably continue using them after that. We might reduce the use, but it will be very difficult to eliminate completely. So, fossil fuels are not compatible with the climate unless you use CCS.

Another important aspect of CCS is its ability to recapture emissions from the atmosphere. For example, if you capture CO2 from bioenergy, or municipal waste, or directly from the air, you can offset sectors of the economy that are hard to decarbonise, such as agriculture and aviation. If we overshoot our carbon target, CCS then gives us the option to clean it up. There is some controversy in this as people say it gives us an excuse to not act effectively now.

I understand this, but I also understand that we’ve been constantly failing in terms of climate change mitigation. Climate change impacts were first reported in the 1950s and now almost in the mid 2020s our CO2 emissions are still going up.

We need to act very strongly, but it’s very possible that because of inaction, from both public and private society, I think we will need those negative emissions technologies. They are very expensive, but they give you the option to act later. My view is that we should develop them – we need every single tool in the box. CCS is a good, cost effective way of going after those 20% of emissions that you cannot decarbonise through energy efficiency, renewables, fuel switching and other low carbon technologies.

What is your outlook on the future of CCS technologies and their role in the transition to net zero?

Mathieu Lucquiaud: I’ve been in this field for a long time, and CCS always comes back, because you cannot solve climate change without it. It’s a nascent industry that is very exciting, it is potentially going to be one of the big industries of the 21st century. It has to be everywhere and it has to be as big as the oil and gas industry now. It requires skills from entire skill sets: engineers, geologists, lawyers, PR and communication, insurance people, banking and investment professionals, construction.

We need more awareness of CCS – when programmes were cancelled in the past, there was no political price for the associated governments cancelling them, whereas if wind power programmes were cancelled there would be huge reactions. We need to get CCS to the same place as wind power in terms of awareness, as an absolute necessity.

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