This is the third and final installment of a Q&A with John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force. Previously we talked about Canada’s leadership in CCS and the problems posed by focusing on CCS liability in advance of scaling the technology. In this last part of the Q&A, Thompson outlines his vision of the benefits available to the American CCS agenda by collaborating with Chinese utilities and oil companies.
For context on how quickly China is emerging as a hothouse of CCS pilots, a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimated that China is home to nearly one-third of active pilot-scale CCS projects globally, many of which are focused on carbon use. China, after all, coined the term carbon capture use and storage (CCUS), notes BNEF, adding that China offers US utilities a test bed with lower labor costs, lower regulatory hurdles, ultra-fast construction timelines, ample capital, and an appetite to learn from the West.
To spur EOR, how can we bring down carbon capture costs?
There’s where we think China comes in. China has very low‑cost capture technology, but they have no or little EOR experience. Texas and the Gulf states have lots of EOR experience, but to get more oil from their mature fields will require anthropogenic CO2. We see a huge opportunity to partner with China here, to bring lower‑cost Chinese CO2 capture technology to the US. A bigger supply of lower-cost CO2 will in turn help capture more of our oil. In turn, we can export EOR technology back to China.
CATF recently hired a new staff person in Texas to develop this vision, Dr. Frank Chou. He’s a 30-year veteran of various refining and chemical companies, most recently Shell. Our aim is to develop links between China and the Gulf states region as a way to promote carbon capture in both countries. China builds projects at twice the speed of the US, and at a fraction of cost. If we can harness these global synergies, we have the potential to really drive down costs globally.
How far has this collaboration gone?
We’ve already brought AEP into partnership with Huaneng, and linked Duke with Huaneng as well. I mentioned Southern Co’s Plant Radcliff earlier: the technology there is a TRIG gasifier, developed in Mobile, Ala., by KBR and Southern Co. That technology is being built in China first, in a small, 120‑megawatt power plant about two hours from Hong Kong. That operational data will help refine the design as Kemper is built.
How has China become a leader in low-cost carbon capture?
We’ve all heard that ‘China builds one coal plant a week’. That may or may not be quite true at the moment, but they’re building at an incredible rate (see chart below), and much of the capacity is at the cutting edge of coal technology. They’re building an advanced coal gasification plant about once a month, where the US has only a handful.
It’s no different than China’s experience with factory manufacturing: there are economies of scale taking place that lower the cost to build advanced coal plants. For example, there’s a plant called Shidonkou, outside of Shanghai. They’re capturing CO2 at about $30 a ton. That same project in the United States would probably be double or triple that cost.
And then there’s the potential appetite in China for EOR. We estimate they have the potential, easily, to build 30 gigawatts of CCS capacity to supply EOR in China. Yet right now, there’s maybe only one EOR project there. With more know-how from the US, there’s huge potential for that number to grow.
But why would China be better able to solve the problem of scaling up carbon capture than here?
The math suggests that China may be able to build CCS on power plants using EOR with little or no incentives. In China, they refer to EOR-CCS as ‘CCUS’ where the ‘U’ is for utilisation.
Keep in mind the value of CO2 for EOR purposes is set by the global price of oil. So whether you’re in Texas, Norway or Beijing, you’re basically paying the same global price for oil and that price establishes the same economic value of the CO2 used for EOR regardless of where you are doing it. On the other hand, capture costs do vary by region and country and in China they’re a fraction of the costs elsewhere.
So, if you buy CO2 for EOR at roughly the same price in China and Texas, but your China capture costs are a third or half what they are in Texas, you may be able to do EOR‑CCS in China on power plants without any extra economic incentives, without any need for a price on carbon.
That’s not true in Texas yet, given today’s cost of capture. To develop power plant CO2 sources, you’re either going to need some kind of incentive or deep reduction in the cost of capture technology.
But we can lower capture costs with China’s help. We can harness that global synergy to scale up 30 gigawatts worth of CCS for EOR in China in a matter of years. That scale of development lowers costs of capture technology globally. Building that much CCS first in the West would take decades. China is a really significant strategic opportunity that we’re trying to exploit.
So a lot of what we’re trying to do in China is break down the barriers between Chinese CO2 suppliers and Chinese oil companies, because the oil companies have the knowledge. They understand the geology but they don’t produce the CO2. If we can create US-Chinese business partnerships, the transfer of technology both ways could take years off the time when CCS is widely deployed.
At the outset, I mentioned that for me, CCS can also mean ‘Copy Canada’s Successes’. Someday, it could also mean ‘Copy China’s Successes’ too. China could be the key to creating global synergies that allow us to develop CCS technology with little or no subsidies, and no price on carbon.