Emmanuel Macron has announced his desire to increase the use of CO2 capture and storage within French industry. If some sites have existed for several years in the world, this solution must change scale to be effective.
On November 8, Emmanuel Macron presented France’s strategy to decarbonise its industry following a meeting with representatives of the 50 sites that emit the most greenhouse gases in the country. The President of the Republic has indicated that this national strategy will be guided by “planning by technology” by mentioning the three main systems that could be implemented.
The former technology is known and is already growing rapidly in France as it is the carbon-free hydrogen sector in which France intends to become a leader. The second is the exploitation of biomass for uses that do not present alternatives. The last is carbon capture and storage, then its industrial reuse which remains relatively unknown.
“It is essential to prepare a large-scale deployment of this technology because it is the only one that allows this decarbonisation for certain platforms”, insisted the Head of State citing the example of the Dunkirk site.
Different capture processes and as many geological storage contexts
As the name suggests, the CCS (Ed: for Carbon capture and storage) consists of capturing CO2 in the fumes emitted by factories and other industrial sites and isolating it from the atmosphere by storing it in underground geological formations. For this there are three different capture processes.
First of all the post-combustion, which has the purpose of washing the fumes in contact with a solvent that absorbs the gas and then it is heated in a regeneration tower to separate the CO2: the Dunkirk platform uses this model. Further upstream, precombustion has a more restricted application and allows CO2 to be extracted from fuels such as oil or coal. Finally, oxy-combustion has the advantage of facilitating carbon capture by favoring oxygen to obtain a more concentrated smoke than ambient air.
As regards the major families of geological contexts capable of storing carbon, there are three: ultrabasic rocks, hydrocarbon-depleted reservoirs and saline aquifers.
“The former are numerous in Iceland but rare in France due to the volcanic context, explains Thomas Le Guénan, a research engineer specializing in CO2 storage. Instead, we find depleted hydrocarbon deposits in the Pau region. They are a priori favorable for storage because they have already contained gas or oil.
These are rocks with porosity located up to 3 kilometers deep and which can be accessed by drilling so that the gas flows inside them. Saline aquifers are quite present in the Paris Basin and are close to depleted reservoirs with the only difference that they have never contained hydrocarbons. “They are therefore more favorable in the long term and CO2 comes to take the place of the brine”, specifies the expert of the Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM).
A genesis at the end of the last century
While this technology has recently benefited from increased visibility in France, it has actually been used elsewhere since the late 20th century. It was Norway that pioneered this sector by introducing a tax for every tonne of CO2 emitted in the 1990s and launching the first CCS project off its coast in 1996 to capture and store 1 million tonnes annually. “The Americans even injected CO2 into the ground in the 1970s, but it was to recover more oil and not for climate purposes,” adds Thomas Le Guénan. However, the United States now enjoys a significant ecosystem of start-ups that are multiplying CCS projects.
“The US government also counts on the financial incentive with the creation of a tax credit system to incentivize initiatives knowing that there is also another one for the production of hydrocarbons,” said Florence Delprat-Jannaud, head of capture programs and CO2 storage within IFP Energies New.
A late France but targeted by geographical areas
On CCS, Europe is split in two. For years, the North Sea has been used to produce oil and is now a natural storage site where countries other than Norway, such as the UK and the Netherlands, are establishing themselves. “They are aware at the high political level of the CCS problems,” says Thomas Le Guénan. Germany has long since banned carbon storage under pressure from a section of the population who are skeptical of the real estate consequences of this technology.
“Historically, France is more linked to this “Southern Europe” but the recent statements by Emmanuel Macron are a positive sign in terms of including this technology on the political agenda”, continues the BRGM engineer.
In France, five zones are actively evaluating the development of CCS. There is obviously Dunkirk where the capture projects are already very concrete and foresee the export of CO2 to storage sites in the North Sea. Reflection has also begun on the Le Havre side with an export of captured carbon there as well. The BRGM works a lot in the Parisian sedimentary basin, and more particularly in the Grandpuits area (Seine-et-Marne), although this contains mainly small CO2 emitters. In the southwest, it is the area of Lacq, a small town near Pau, that is being targeted for its past in gas production. A cross-border project with Spain could also see the light of day. Finally, the Rhône Valley is the last space, from Lyon to Marseille, with the prospect of storage in the Mediterranean, but here the scenarios are less mature.
A necessary change of scale in the coming years
Currently, some thirty large plants capture and store 40 million tons a year worldwide: a drop of water compared to the 40 gigatons of C02 emitted each year. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides cause for hope by estimating CO2 storage capacity at 1000 gigatons.
“If we look at scenarios towards carbon neutrality, 100 times more carbon will still need to be captured by 2035,” recalls Florence Delprat-Jannaud.
To illustrate the essential acceleration on CCS, VET expert Energies Nouvelles cites the example of Dunkirk. Still in an experimental phase, the case of the ArcelorMittal site should make it possible to capture up to half a ton of C02 per hour when the industrial scale requires multiplying this figure by 200 or even 300. With this in mind, Thomas Le Guénan argues for the mobilization of large industrialists who have the possibility to connect to carbon storage hubs, or even to create one themselves. Proof of this is the colossal Northern Lights project, led by Equinor, TotalEnergies and Shell, the first phase of which will be completed in a year and a half. From mid-2024, several countries will be able to store the CO2 they captured there, up to a limit of 1.5 million tonnes per year.
Increasing carbon shares are a profitability lever for CCS
While the recent adoption of the carbon border tax by the EU is a new factor to consider for industrialists considering CCS, the decline in the value of carbon shares traded within the European community is a real boon. Its particularly low level during the 2010s slowed down many projects, but rising again to currently around 90 euros per tonne, it now plays a major incentive role towards large producers. In fact, the cost of CCS technology varies between 50 and 180 euros per ton of CO2. “This strong variation is explained by the degree of carbon concentration which varies according to the sector and with it the degree of ease of capturing this CO2”, explains Florence Delprat-Jannaud.
“Industrials are more confident about the profitability of CCS, but carbon fluctuation is still a problem because this “market” dimension is an obstacle to projection,” laments Thomas Le Guénan.
A technology for small and large transmitters
The cost of an infrastructure can vary from a few tens to several hundred million euros (760 million dollars in the case of Northern Lights for example). The strategic choice to adopt this infrastructure is influenced by various factors such as the composition of the fumes or even the obligation or not to intervene on the system. However, it is suitable for most large industrial emitters, especially manufacturing companies, coal-fired power plants that produce electricity, but also the steel and cement sectors and the chemical industry.
“In France we have very carbon-free energy with renewables, but in China there are a number of coal-fired power plants that we can’t imagine suddenly replacing with renewables,” says Florence Delprat-Jannaud. it will therefore be necessary to go through the capture and storage of CO2.”
And even the smallest emitters have a place to play in the process by moving towards mutualisation in the capture but also in the transport of CO2 to storage sites in order to reduce the impact of the investment cost. “A solution for them may also be to combine carbon storage with geothermal energy to generate heat at the same time,” evokes Thomas Le Guénan.
A “CCS plan” presented by the government before the summer
In another part of the ecosystem, start-ups and philanthropic funds are investing in atmospheric capture, which the IPCC also encourages in a logic of deploying all portfolios of solutions in the face of the climate emergency. More expensive than conventional CCS, this technology involves capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere, which could offset widespread carbon emissions. In just under a year, the state of Wyoming will open a major atmospheric capture site with an annual goal of 5 million tons caught by 2030.
While European states continue to reflect on funding methods and mechanisms to create infrastructure and launch the sector, Emmanuel Macron has already announced that the government will present a “CCS plan” before the summer. Likewise, part of the 200 million euro budget envisaged to accelerate research into decarbonisation solutions will be allocated to this technology.