Is CCUS Competing Against Support for Renewables?

by Charlie

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is a group of technologies that reduces the emissions of power plants and industrial facilities. It does this by capturing and storing as much as 90 per cent of the facilities’ carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As a result, CCUS can prevent the CO2 from entering the atmosphere.1

It may sound like a magic solution to the climate change conundrum. However, in reality, it is dangerous to believe CCUS will solve climate change alone. Too much faith in this nascent technology has led to it competing with renewable energy sources for funding.

The cost of CCUS

CCUS technology drains billions of dollars every year.2 Fossil fuel companies are naturally the biggest advocates. They hope that it will permit them to continue burning coal, oil and natural gas indefinitely. However, there are just 21 CCUS facilities in operation worldwide. They can capture up to 40 million tonnes of CO2 each year.3 This is woefully low compared to the 36 billion tonnes we emit annually.4 

Scientists generally agree that we need to remove and permanently store about 10 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050.5 The International Energy Agency (IEA), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other groups estimate that 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 need to be captured and stored each year by 2030. Otherwise, global warming will exceed 1.5°C with catastrophic repercussions.6 

There are just 20 additional CCUS facilities in development. These large-scale projects require six to 10 years from conception to commissioning.7 Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that this carbon capture target will be met. 

The case for renewables

Meanwhile, renewable energy sources provide an increasingly economic solution to emissions reduction. Since 2010, the cost of solar, onshore and offshore wind energy is down 82, 39 and 29 per cent, respectively. The price of onshore wind and solar PV-generated power is now below USD $0.05/kWh. It is cheaper than fossil fuel-fired power generation. This usually stands between USD $0.05/kWh and $0.18/kWh.8

With such low costs, it is no surprise that the share of renewables in global electricity generation reached nearly 28 per cent in Q1 2020.9 Between 2009 and 2019, the world’s consumption of renewable energy almost quadrupled from 8.2 to 29.0 exajoules.10 Not only are these clean energy sources leading to price reductions, but they also decrease emissions. Renewables such as wind and solar produce no CO2 or other greenhouse gas emissions.11

In the past decade, clean energy consumption has grown at an average annual rate of 13.7 per cent. This was the only energy category to grow globally at double digits over the past decade.12 Moreover, the growth comes at the expense of coal and natural gas plants.13 There is evidently huge scope for renewables to replace fossil fuels for our energy needs. 

CCUS vs. renewables as a climate change solution

The enormous amounts of money still pouring into CCUS development could instead fund renewable energy sources. For instance, Kemper power plant in Mississippi was once heralded as the future of ‘clean coal’.14 More than USD $7.5 billion was spent on the facility, including USD $4 billion above the projected budget. However, three years behind schedule, the project was abandoned.15

You might think the industry has learned from setbacks, such as the Kemper coal plant. On the contrary, another CCUS project is currently being planned in Kemper county.16 Similarly, the UK government is making up to GBP £20 million available for a CCUS demonstration programme.17 This is despite that they spent GBP £168 million on CCUS before 2017 with no tangible progress or development.18

It is illogical to continue to fund this technology in the face of multiple costly failures to establish CCUS as a functioning climate mitigation strategy. Renewables pose a realistic, clean and cheap energy alternative to fossil fuels. It is clear that funding for CCUS is in direct competition with renewables. What is less clear is why governments continue to pour money into a concept that is expensive and prone to failure. 


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