13 Feb 2020, 08:56

Quest for climate neutrality puts CCS back on the table in Germany

Years of protest against industry plans to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a lifeline for coal power made the technology a no-go issue for German politicians. But the new goal of climate neutrality by 2050 forces the country into a fresh debate about dealing with unavoidable CO2 emissions, for example in cement production. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said CCS will be necessary to reach the net-zero target, and her government is looking into tapping the sizeable carbon storage potential under the North Sea. This factsheet provides a brief explanation of CCS technologies, their history and current status in Germany.

What is CCS?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) as “a process consisting of the separation of CO₂ from industrial and energy-related sources, transport to a storage location and long-term isolation from the atmosphere.”

There are several different ways of capturing carbon from fossil power plants or industrial facilities (e.g. cement production), including post and pre-combustion methods. Most projects target large point sources of CO₂ because using CCS on small and decentral sources is considered too expensive and impractical. Several large-scale facilities have been implemented around the world, such as Emirates Steel’s CCS project and the Petra Nova coal power plant near Houston, Texas. Direct air capture (DAC) is also a possibility, but the method is still in its infancy, laborious and expensive. Swiss company Climeworks is among the pioneers.

CO₂ can be stored in onshore and offshore geological formations, such as oil and gas fields, unminable coal beds and deep saline formations in the ocean, or used to create products such as plastic or chemicals (CCUcarbon capture and utilisation). The carbon can also be stored through enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which uses injected CO₂ to extract oil that is otherwise not recoverable. In this process, parts of the CO₂ used stays underground. There are several large-scale projects around the world, of which most are EOR projects.

In 2019, the total number of large-scale CCS projects in operation worldwide was 19, according to the status report by the Global CCS Institute. That year, more than 25 million tonnes of CO₂ from the power and industrial sectors were permanently stored using CCS. Germany had total greenhouse gas emissions of about 810 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalents.

Graph shows Global Status of CCS. Global CCS Institute, 2019.
Power and industrial applications of large-scale CCS facilities in operation, under construction and in advanced development. Global CCS Institute, 2019.

Merkel puts CCS back on the table to tackle unavoidable emissions on way to climate neutrality 2050

When Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in May 2019 that Germany would join the pledge of other EU member states to become climate neutral by 2050, the conservative politician made clear that in her view this would require the use of carbon capture and storage to deal with unavoidable emissions. She thus put a highly contentious topic back on the agenda, acknowledging that “CO₂ storage is very controversial in Germany and many people are worried”.

In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Merkel was asked whether the CCS debate wasn’t already dead in Germany. “Now it is back,” she said. The country needs a “wide debate in society” and CCS will also be on the agenda of her cabinet, she added.

Energy and climate scientists say CCS will likely be needed in the future. While emissions in the energy sector could be reduced to zero with renewable sources, some emissions in agriculture or from industrial processes, such as cement production, will be unavoidable in the long term.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and environment minister Svenja Schulze at the tenth Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin in 2019. Photo: BMU/photothek/Thomas Koehler.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and environment minister Svenja Schulze at the tenth Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin in 2019. Photo: BMU/photothek/Thomas Koehler.

The scenarios to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report also included CCS. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) stated that “CCS is a necessity not an option” for reaching net-zero emissions in its report from early May, which called on the government to aim for climate neutrality. And the European Commission’s proposed long term climate strategy says CCS is necessary, especially in energy-intensive industries “and – in the transitional phase -- for the production of carbon-free hydrogen.”

Most studies on increasingly decarbonised future energy systems predict the use of CCS will increase in lockstep with increasingly ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets. The Federation of German Industries (BDI), Germany’s powerful industry lobby, said in its landmark study on possible paths to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the economy that reaching an ambitious emissions reduction goal of up to 95 percent would require exponentially larger sums of investments and the use of “currently unpopular technologies such as CCS”, particularly in tackling industry emissions.

However, there are also scenarios, such as those by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and Energy Watch Group, that do without CCS.

Now it is back.

German chancellor Angela Merkel

Germany’s government, meanwhile, has picked up Merkel’s initiative. In its Climate Action Programme 2030, which was approved in autumn 2019, the government says it will set up a CCS programme, noting that most studies show the technology to be indispensable for reaching greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. CCS offers “a comparatively low cost reduction possibility for unavoidable emissions from industrial processes in the mid-term”, it points out. The government thus plans to intensify CCS research and development, as also stated in the economy ministry’s Industry Strategy 2030.

When it comes to storing carbon, the German government no longer envisions projects on land, but rather aims to tap “the big European offshore potential” in the North Sea, and to intensify cooperation with neighbouring countries.  

The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) assesses the geological conditions in Germany in coordination with state services to enable the government to evaluate the potential for carbon storage. The BGR estimates German total storage capacity to be 20-115 gigatonnes (Gt) in theory, mainly under the North Sea, a spokesperson told Clean Energy Wire. But he added some of the capacity will likely not be used because it is too expensive, too controversial, or prohibited by other factors. The country currently emits around 0.8 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, and global energy-related CO2 emissions stand at 33 gigatonnes per year. 

CCS gaining support

Today, many in the German research community and even some environmental NGOs support the idea of using carbon storage if it is not employed to extend coal and gas-fired power generation. In September 2018, an alliance of German experts from science, industry, government and environmental organisations called for an immediate and open public debate on whether and how carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) and storage (CCS) should be used as climate protection instruments for unavoidable industrial processes.

However, for the German public to support this, intensive debates would be required. CCS has not featured in recent polls on the public’s acceptance of technologies needed as part of the energy transition because the subject has been widely seen as a no go. Researchers at the Fraunhofer ISI institute concluded in an analysis of public acceptance published in 2015 that the technology barely had any support. “The results indicate that Germany’s citizens assess CCS as a high risk technology and do not perceive its benefits,” they wrote.

German parties are split on the technology, with some calling for its use – such as Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) – and others in outright opposition, such as the Left Party. The Greens are “open to all technological solutions for climate action”, said Lisa Badum, climate policy spokesperson of the Green group. However, these would have to be technically feasible, safe, economically sound and accepted by the population. “CCS meets none of these criteria. That’s why it’s factually dead in Germany.”

Graph explains transport infrastructure for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Source: Global CCS Institute.
Source: Global CCS Institute.

Public opposition in Germany

Public opposition in Germany has mainly focussed on carbon storage and less so on capture and transport. People fear what is often portrayed as the uncontrollable risks of storage and oppose the planned application on coal power plants, according to the German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech).

Erika Bellmann, climate and energy expert at environmental NGO WWF, says the debate leading up to the technology’s earlier rejection was misguided. “It did not centre on small amounts of residual emissions in industry, but was essentially about saving coal-fired power generation and the fossil energy industry. That led to many misgivings which cannot be dispelled overnight.”

In 2009, the German government cabinet adopted a first draft of a CCS law to transpose the European Union CCS directive into national regulation. This draft would have allowed for the large-scale use of the involved technologies.

However, voter protests against projects in the northern states of Schleswig-Holstein and Brandenburg prompted regional governments to call for temporal and quantitative limitations to CO₂ storage projects. The government in 2011 introduced a new draft that was limited to testing and demonstrating purposes and stipulated a much lower total amount of CO₂. After a lengthy legislative process it came into force on 24 August 2012.

2012 carbon storage law and what it means

Germany’s “law for the demonstration of permanent storage of carbon dioxide” set out rules that would have allowed three medium-sized pilot projects. But federal states could prohibit carbon storage in certain regions, and many German states have effectively introduced a complete ban. The law's deadline for applications passed in 2016 without a single submission. Therefore, it is currently impossible to start a CO₂ storage project in Germany.

Are there storage projects in Germany?

There are only two large-scale CCS facilities in operation in Europe, both in Norway. The Scandinavian country is advertising its plans to store huge amounts of CO₂ from neighbouring countries in empty gas fields under the seabed.

In Germany there have been a total of only four projects with the goal of carbon storage, and only one got to a point where CO₂ was actually injected into the ground. At the Ketzin pilot site, 40 kilometres west of Berlin, scientists injected 67,271 tonnes on CO₂ into rock formations at 650 metres depth from 2008 to 2013. Research continued until 2017. The project “has shown that it is possible to monitor a CO₂ storage site” as the spatial expansion of the carbon could be mapped, according to the German government.

Photo of CCS pilot site in Ketzin, 40 km west of Berlin. Source: T. Kollersberger, GFZ.
At the pilot site in Ketzin, 40 km west of Berlin, national and European projects coordinated by the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) researched CCS. Source: T. Kollersberger, GFZ.

Since the entry into force of the 2012 CCS law, no storages or pipelines have been applied for, approved or built.

There have been several research initiatives in Germany, some financed by the government, which looked into the feasibility of carbon storage, examined capturing technologies or facilitated the scientific debate around CCS in general.

Impacts of CCS

CCS is controversial because critics see it as an expensive technology that could ultimately perpetuate rather than reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Capturing, transporting and storing CO₂ is expensive and uses a lot of energy. Costs of capture, storage and possible utilisation vary widely depending on the method used to capture carbon, the type of industry, the location and the regulatory framework used (e.g. state subsidies, carbon taxes, allowance prices in emissions trading systems such as the EU ETS). In a 2018 report, acatech said: “Without financial support and/or appropriate CO₂ pricing, CCU and CCS will not be able to achieve the required momentum.”

In addition, CCS may have negative environmental effects, which the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) assessed in a 2018 report. There is the risk of carbon leaks from storages or transport pipelines, or saline water being pushed up towards groundwater levels due to high underground pressure.

This is not so much an issue during regularly intended operation. Here, most of the potential effects “can be regulated in the framework of approval proceedings through conditions, avoidance and compensatory measures,” according to the UBA. Accidents, however, could lead to large amounts of CO₂ emitted into the surrounding area in a very short time.

CO₂ is a colourless and odourless gas. On land, the CO₂ will accumulate near the ground due to its greater density than air. At high concentration, this can become harmful to humans and animals. It would also lower the pH-value in groundwater and soil.

Injecting carbon into the ground can also induce seismic activity. There have been only a few instances where the seismic activity caused in large-scale storage projects or EOR was strong enough to be felt by humans. However, injecting carbon could potentially cause earthquakes that damage buildings or harm people.

Under the sea, carbon is largely diluted in the case of a leak. A strong increase of CO₂ concentration and acidification effects are to be expected primarily on a local scale, with potentially harmful or fatal effects on marine life.

Due to decades-long extraction of oil and gas, the ground under the North Sea is full of drilling holes from which carbon could leak. There are more than 10,000 such holes and it is questionable whether they can all be avoided when storing CO₂ on a large scale, Klaus Wallmann from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel told Deutschlandfunk.

Chemicals used in the process of capturing carbon can also become an issue for health and the environment and building up a CCS infrastructure will have consequences for the environment due to the construction of above-ground facilities such as injection systems, pipelines and access roads.

There are a myriad of environmental effects that could derive from implementing CCS on a large scale, as this could involve fundamental changes in the energy system, such as a shift from coal to gas in certain areas. While coal emits more CO₂ than gas when burned, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, so the climate effects might be similar if methane leakages along the value chain are not kept in check. Another example is enhanced oil recovery. Using CCS for EOR could lead to more emissions from the additional oil than the amount of CO₂ pumped underground. And should the CO₂ be transported via ships, these have their own emissions.

CCS in other European countries

The European Commission has included five projects aimed at developing cross-border carbon dioxide networks in and among EU Member States, and neighbouring third countries in its latest list of Projects of Common Interest (PCI). These projects can benefit from simplified permitting and the right to apply for EU funding.

Norway is among the most experienced countries in the world when it comes to CCS. With Sleipner and Snøhvit, the country operates Europe’s only two active large-scale projects. At Sleipner, one million tonnes of CO₂ annually have been separated from extracted natural gas and stored under the seabed since 1996. Norwegian oil and gas company Equinor is currently carrying out a feasibility study regarding CO2 storage on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. The Northern Lights project would set up a European CO₂ transport and storage network, but the involved costs remain a big hurdle.

In 2015, the UK government cancelled a 1 billion pound competition for carbon capture and storage technology just six months before it was due to be awarded. Two projects had been in the running to build plants demonstrating CCS at commercial scale, but were then cancelled. In October 2017, the government announced its new approach to carbon capture, usage and storage in the Clean Growth Strategy. “The approach is designed to enable the UK to become a global technology leader for CCUS and ensure that government has the option of deploying CCUS at scale during the 2030s, subject to costs coming down sufficiently,” the government said.

At a 2018 CCUS summit, the UK and Norway signed a memorandum of understanding on CCUS collaboration.

The Dutch government sees CCS as a crucial element in the measures needed to reach climate targets in a cost-effective manner. In the Netherlands, the focus of CCS use is put on industry emissions and storage is planned exclusively under the seabed. As part of a multi-stakeholder Climate Agreement from 2019 (Klimaatakkoord), CCS is one instrument to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49 percent by 2030. However, the climate plan cautions that “CCS may not impede the structural development of alternative climate-neutral technologies or activities for carbon emissions reduction”. Thus, the funding is capped and restricted to sites where no demonstrably cost-effective alternatives are available at the time. The Rotterdam port CCUS project Porthos plans to collect CO₂ from different companies in the port area, transport it out to the North Sea via pipeline and store it in an empty gas field under the seabed.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.

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