Why commercialization of carbon capture and sequestration has failed and how it can work

There are 12 essential attributes that explain why commercial carbon capture and sequestration projects succeed or fail in the U.S., University of California San Diego researchers say in a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has become increasingly important in addressing climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies greatly on the technology to reach zero carbon at low cost. Additionally, it is among the few low-carbon technologies in President Joseph R. Biden’s proposed $400 billion clean energy plan that earns bipartisan support.

In the last two decades, private industry and government have invested tens of billions of dollars to capture CO2 from dozens of industrial and power plant sources. Despite the extensive support, these projects have largely failed. In fact, 80 percent of projects that seek to commercialize carbon capture and sequestration technology have ended in failure.

“Instead of relying on case studies, we decided that we needed to develop new methods to systematically explain the variation in project outcome of why do so many projects fail,” said lead author Ahmed Y. Abdulla, research fellow with UC San Diego’s Deep Decarbonization Initiative and assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton University. “Knowing which features of CCS projects have been most responsible for past successes and failures allows developers to not only avoid past mistakes, but also identify clusters of existing, near-term CCS projects that are more likely to succeed.”

He added, “By considering the largest sample of U.S. CCS projects ever studied, and with extensive support from people who managed these projects in the past, we essentially created a checklist of attributes that matter and gauged the extent to which each does.”

Credibility of incentives and revenues is key

The researchers found that the credibility of revenues and incentives — functions of policy and politics — are among the most important attributes, along with capital cost and technological readiness, which have been studied extensively in the past.

“Policy design is essential to help commercialize the industry because CCS projects require a huge amount of capital up front,” the authors, comprised of an international team of researchers, note.

The authors point to existing credible policies that act as incentives, such as the 2018 expansion of the 45Q tax credit. It provides companies with a guaranteed revenue stream if they sequester CO2 in deep geologic repositories.

The only major incentive companies have had thus far to recoup their investments in carbon capture is by selling the CO2 to oil and gas companies, who then inject it into oil fields to enhance the rate of extraction — a process referred to as enhanced oil recovery.

The 45Q tax credit also incentivizes enhanced oil recovery, but at a lower price per CO2 unit, compared to dedicated geologic CO2 storage.

Beyond selling to oil and gas companies, CO2 is not exactly a valuable commodity, so few viable business cases exist to sustain a CCS industry on the scale that is necessary or envisioned to stabilize the climate.

“If designed explicitly to address credibility, public policy could have a huge impact on the success of projects,” said David Victor, co-lead of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative and professor of industrial innovation at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Results with expert advice from project managers with real-world experience

While technological readiness has been studied extensively and is essential to reducing the cost and risk of CCS, the researchers looked beyond the engineering and engineering economics to determine why CCS continues to be such a risky investment. Over the course of two years, the researchers analyzed publicly available records of 39 U.S. projects and sought expertise from CCS project managers with extensive, real-world experience.

They identified 12 possible determinants of project outcomes, which are technological readiness, credibility of incentives, financial credibility, cost, regulatory challenges, burden of CO2 removal, industrial stakeholder opposition, public opposition, population proximity, employment impact, plant location, and the host state’s appetite for fossil infrastructure development.

To evaluate the relative influence of the 12 factors in explaining project outcomes, the researchers built two statistical models and complemented their empirical analysis with a model derived through expert assessment.

The experts only underscored the importance of credibility of revenues and incentives; the vast majority of successful projects arranged in advance to sell their captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. They secured unconditional incentives upfront, boosting perceptions that they were resting on secure financial footing.

The authors conclude models in the study — especially when augmented with the structured elicitation of expert judgment — can likely improve representations of CCS deployment across energy systems.

“Assessments like ours empower both developers and policymakers,” the authors write. “With data to identify near-term CCS projects that are more likely to succeed, these projects will become the seeds from which a new CCS industry sprouts.”

Co-authors include Ryan Hanna, assistant research scientist at UC San Diego; Kristen R Schell, assistant professor at Carleton University; and Oytun Babacan, research fellow at Imperial College London.

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