The unexpected turn of CO2 from villain to ally in the energy transition

Maria Jose Perez-Barco




It is the third pillar that will support the bridge towards the decarbonisation of the European economy. In addition to energy efficiency and promoting renewables, C02 Capture, Use and Storage (CCUS) is another promising option that will contribute to a greenhouse gas emissions neutral Europe, responsible for climate change. Pilot experiences have already shown that there is enough technology, but it needs to be scaled up with the first projects that are launched, and that there are still few. However, many look (including the International Energy Agency and the EU) towards this disruptive technology with high hopes because it will contribute to reducing, according to estimates, around 10% of C02 emissions by 2050. And when it comes to To achieve a carbon dioxide neutral Europe, all the alternatives add up. The challenge is so colossal that “we have to have all the technologies available to us. Each one has its market, its competitiveness, its pros and cons, “he says. Margaret of Gregory, Director of the Biomass section of APPA Renovables and coordinator of the Biomass Technology platform (Bioplat).

And like all new technology, large investments are required, reducing costs to make it economically viable and competitive and, if it is not stored, developing new processes to convert CO2 into products that have added value and can be marketed. “As technologies are developed, with more pilot tests and more projects, costs become cheaper, both due to the adoption of new, more efficient technologies and a process of ‘learning by doing’ in projects,” he explains. Jacobo Canal, Geomechanics expert at Repsol, one of the Spanish companies that has incorporated CCUS technologies into its decarbonization portfolio.

Where the capture of C02 can play a very relevant role is in certain industries whose production processes require a large amount of energy and produce enormous emissions of this gas. On the one hand, “in the processing of natural gas at source, the manufacture of gray hydrogen, the obtaining of ammonia and the manufacture of ethanol, which concentrate up to 96% of C02”, it indicates Vicente Cortés, President of Inerco (a consultancy for sustainable industrial development) and former advisor for the monitoring of C02 capture projects financed by the European Commission.

On the other hand, hunting the gas responsible for the greenhouse effect can be very useful in cement factories, steel, combustion in refineries and petrochemical plants, in which electrification, through renewables, does not seem to be a viable alternative for decarbonisation. “If these processes are electrified, they will require very intense electrification and that electricity would have to be produced by renewable sources. Where are we going to put as many renewables as will be necessary for the consumption that we have, which will also increase when these industries decarbonise, switch to electricity and no fossil fuel enters. Taking into account that all thermal and nuclear power will be replaced by renewables, “he explains. Luis Díaz Fernández, President of the Spanish Platform of C02 (PTEC02).

Emissions market

Even if these industries used renewables as an energy source, they could not avoid emissions. “For example, the raw material for cement, calcium carbonate, when decomposed is C02 and represents 60% of what one of these plants can emanate. In other words, fuel emissions can be reduced but process emissions cannot. And there is no technology to change that process, ”explains Vicente Cortés. “Renewables are not the solutions for everything”, holds Margarita de Gregorio. Therefore, if a capture plant is installed next to or near a cement plant that hunts the C02 it emits, it would become a carbon neutral plant.

There is another card at stake: the emission rights market, as Cortés indicates. “Right now,” he says, “it is cheaper to pay 40 euros per ton of C02 emitted, than the 90 or 100 euros it would take to capture, transport and store that ton.” And while the price of C02 emission rights is expected to rise, as the EU reduces the number of emissions that can be expelled into the atmosphere every year, that entails another risk: if emission prices rise and C02 capture is expensive, “these companies will relocate and go to other countries,” says Cortés.

It is estimated that this technology will reduce CO2 emissions by over 10%

For this reason, given the heavy investments that capturing C02 now requires, public support could be an incentive that would encourage companies to implement these technologies, just as at the time “renewables enjoyed premiums and incentives, which today does not have capture of carbon ”, considers Cortés. And not only him. “Since the entire value chain is in the initial deployment stage, public policies and incentives are needed to stimulate all the investment required”, also supports Miquel Lope, Managing Director of Metallic Carbides and Vice President of Air Products South of Europe and the Maghreb.


And what exits does the recovered carbon have? Once it has undergone a conversion process (or several), its profits are more than we can imagine. “There are more than 40 products derived from C02 and more than 70 possible routes to obtain it with different levels of development, from emerging technologies to production processes operating on an industrial scale, as for example occurs with the manufacture of urea, which is a fertilizer” explains Cortés. “Americans have been using it for years to improve oil recovery. They inject C02 into almost empty reservoirs or where the oil is diffused between sand and rock to recover the fuel and the C02 remains trapped. It is used for the production of fertilizers, microalgae, in greenhouses … And polymers can be made that can be a kind of substitute for plastic … », indicates Luis Díaz. Miquel Lope also lists its use in multiple sectors: from «The carbonation of soft drinks and draft beer until the preservation of food and samples and tissues in laboratories, medicines, agriculture, water treatment, refrigeration and freezing … ».

The business is also investigating C02 conversion processes into new products. Combined with hydrogen, it can generate “methane, methanol, intermediate chemicals and synthetic liquid fuels”, the latter would be decarbonized and would be compatible with current cars, also with airplanes and ships. There are more opportunities, for example, Repsol works with C02 “in the manufacture of new materials, from the synthesis of polymers, which allow the manufacture of foams for seats or mattresses or plastic films,” says Jacobo Canal.


If the captured C02 does not undergo conversion processes, it has another destination: geological storage in the subsoil. Thus, “it is definitively removed from circulation,” says Cortés. The most effective solution is to use old depleted oil and natural gas deposits. “These formations are prepared to retain a gas as they have done with oil or natural gas for thousands of years. In Scotland, Norway and Holland it has been done for a long time, ”says Cortés. In Spain there is no such option. For this reason, “if the storage were in those warehouses abroad, we would have to transport it on ships and pay,” adds Luis Díaz.

However, “we do have the capacity to store it in deep saline aquifers,” adds Díaz. It is also a very effective option. At a depth of 1,000 meters, over time, the carbon dioxide dissolves in the water (not suitable for consumption) of the storage formation and ends up turning into minerals and occupying the pore space. But, according to Cortés, it is a technology “that is less advanced.”

There is another handicap: the storage of C02 does not have a very good acceptance among Spanish public opinion. And therefore, not among governments either, point out different experts. We only have to remember the case of the Castor submarine gas warehouse, off the Coasts of Vinarós and the Ebro Delta, which was closed after generating various earthquakes in 2013. However, storing C02 «has been shown to be safe and there are examples of storage facilities that are operating all over the world ”, defends Miquel Lope.

Captured, stored or reconverted into new products, developing the CO2 value chain is an added alternative in order to reduce emissions of this greenhouse gas, something that Europe, the world, are at stake on.

Make way in Spain

Two pioneering CCUS projects will see the light in the coming years in Spain. Repsol intends to build in the port of Bilbao, together with other partners, one of the largest plants in the world for the production of synthetic fuels zero net emissions, from CO2 (captured in the nearby Petronor refinery) and hydrogen produced with 100% renewable electricity. This fuel “can be used in current car, truck or aircraft engines,” says Jacobo Canal. The plant will require an initial investment of more than 60 million euros and will be fully operational within four years. In a first phase, scalable to a later commercial stage depending on the results, 50 barrels per day of synthetic fuel will be obtained.

In addition, Repsol has launched another CO2 capture and storage project linked to the large Sakakemang natural gas field in Indonesia. And through the investment fund of the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative, it promotes, together with its partners, the development of carbon capture, use and storage technologies.

The other pioneering project is from the Spanish company of Metallic Carbides (is part of the Air Products group) that will build and operate a CO2 recovery, purification and reuse plant from the Bioeléctrica de Garray power generation plant that ENSO (Energy Environment and Sustainability) has in the Soria town of Garray. This biomass plant, in operation since 2013, will provide the energy and steam necessary for the capture and processing of CO2. The plant is expected to start operating in June this year.

The Garray biomass plant uses forest biomass from pruning and cleaning of forests and by-products of agricultural activities as fuel. “The processing of CO2 will have a very positive environmental impact on Garray and its surroundings by avoiding the release into the atmosphere of polluting gases”, considers Miquel Lope.

It is not the first experience of this type for Carburos Metónicos, which also has a CO2 capture and reuse facility in operation in Telde (Gran Canaria) to avoid emissions from the Vidrieras Canarias furnaces.

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