The French are betting on further decarbonizing the economy

Emmanuel Macron has announced his desire to increase the use of CO2 capture and sequestration in French industry. If some sites have been around the world for several years, this solution must scale to be effective.

On November 8, Emmanuel Macron presented France’s industrial decarbonisation strategy after a meeting with representatives of the country’s 50 largest greenhouse gas emitters. The President of the Republic stated that this national strategy will be guided by “planning with technology”, mentioning three main systems that can be applied.

The first technology is well-known and already developing rapidly in France, as it is the carbon-free hydrogen sector, which France intends to lead. The second is the exploitation of biomass within the framework of non-alternative uses. The latter is carbon capture and sequestration, followed by its reuse in industry, which remains relatively unknown.

“It is important to prepare the large-scale application of this technology, because it is the only technology that allows this decarbonization for certain platforms,” ​​the head of state insisted, citing the Dunkirk site as an example.

Multiple capture processes and multiple geologic contexts for storage

As the name suggests, CCS (Editor’s Note: for Carbon Capture and Storage) consists of capturing CO2 in the smoke emitted by factories and other industries and isolating it from the atmosphere by storing it in underground geological formations. There are three different capture processes for this.

First, the afterburner, which aims to wash the fumes in contact with a solvent that absorbs the gas, is then heated in a regeneration tower to separate the CO2: the Dunkirk platform uses this model. Further up, pre-combustion has a more limited application and makes it possible to remove CO2 from fuels such as oil or coal. Finally, the advantage of oxidation is to facilitate carbon capture by favoring oxygen to produce a more concentrated smoke than ambient air.

Regarding the main families of geological contexts that can store carbon, there are three: ultramafic rocks, hydrocarbon-depleted reservoirs, and saline aquifers.

“The first is abundant in Iceland, but rare in France in a volcanic context,” explains Thomas Le Quénan, a research engineer specialized in CO2 storage. On the other hand, in the Pau region we find depleted reservoirs of hydrocarbons. They are favorable a priori. They must be stored because they already contain gas or oil.

These are porous rocks that lie up to 3 kilometers deep and can be accessed by drilling for gas to flow into them. Saline aquifers are mostly present in the Paris Basin and are close to depleted reservoirs, with the only difference that they never contain hydrocarbons. “Therefore, they are more affordable in the long run and CO2 replaces brine,” says an expert from the Bureau of Geological and Mining Surveys (BRGM).

A genesis at the end of the last century

Although this technology has recently benefited from increased exposure in France, it has actually been used elsewhere since the late 20th century. It was Norway that pioneered the field in the 1990s by introducing a tax on every tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere and launching the first CCS project on its coast in 1996 to capture and store 1 million tonnes annually. “The Americans even pumped CO2 into the ground in the 1970s, but not for climate purposes, but to extract more oil,” adds Thomas Le Guénan. Still, the United States today has an important ecosystem of startups spawning CCS projects.

Florence Delprat-Jannaud, in charge of CO2 capture and storage programs within IFP Energies, emphasizes: “The American government also hopes for a financial incentive by creating a tax credit system to promote initiatives, knowing that there is another one for the production of hydrocarbons” Nouvelles.

France, which is lagging behind but targeting geographic areas

Europe is divided in CCS. For years, the North Sea has been used to produce oil, and now it is a natural storage area that, in addition to Norway, also houses countries such as Great Britain and the Netherlands. “They are aware of CCS issues at a high political level,” confirms Thomas Le Guenan. Germany has long banned carbon storage under pressure from a section of the population skeptical of the technology’s real estate implications.

“Historically, France is more connected to this ‘Southern Europe’, but Emmanuel Macron’s recent statements are a positive signal in terms of bringing this technology to the political agenda,” the BRGM engineer continues.

In France, five zones are actively considering the development of CCS. Obviously, there is Dunkirk, where capture projects are already very concrete and involve the export of CO2 to storage sites in the North Sea. Reflection also begins on the Havre side, along with the export of captured carbon. BRGM is very active in the Paris sedimentary basin, especially in the Grandpuits (Seine-et-Marne) region, although there are mostly small CO2 emissions here. To the southwest is the Lacq area, a town near Pau targeted for its past in gas production. A cross-border project with Spain may also see the light of day. Finally, the Rhone Valley is the last place from Lyon to Marseille with a Mediterranean storage perspective, but the scenarios here are less mature.

A necessary change in scale in the coming years

Currently, around thirty large-scale facilities around the world capture and store 40 million tons per year: 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) gives reason for hope by estimating the storage capacity of CO2 at 1,000 gigatons.

Florence Delprat-Jannaud recalls: “If we look at scenarios of carbon neutrality, we still need to capture 100 times more carbon by 2035.”

To illustrate the fundamental acceleration in CCS, the IFP Energies Nouvelles expert cites the example of Dunkirk. Still in the experimental stage, when industrial scale calls for multiplying this figure to 200 or even 300, the ArcelorMittal site should be able to capture up to half a ton of C02 per hour. With this in mind, Thomas Le Quénan pleads. for the mobilization of large industrialists who have the opportunity to join or even create carbon storage nodes themselves. Proof of this is the huge Northern Lights project led by Equinor, TotalEnergies and Shell, whose first phase will be completed in a year and a half. Starting in mid-2024, several countries will be able to store up to 1.5 million tons of CO2 each year.

Increasing carbon quotas is a profitability lever for CCS

While the recent adoption of a carbon border tax by the EU is a new factor to consider for industrialists considering CCS, the drop in the cost of carbon stocks traded within the European Union is a real boon. . Its particularly low level in the 2010s slowed down many projects, but it is now playing a more stimulating role against large producers, having risen again to reach €90 per tonne. Indeed, the cost of CCS technology varies between 50 and 180 euros per ton of CO2. “This strong variability is explained by the degree of carbon concentration that varies by industry and thus the degree of opportunity to capture this CO2,” says Florence Delprat-Jannaud.

“Industrialists are more confident about the profitability of CCS, but carbon emissions are still an issue, as this ‘market’ size is an obstacle to forecasting,” laments Thomas Le Guénan.

Technology for small and large transmitters

The cost of the infrastructure can range from a few tens of millions to several hundreds of millions of euros (for example, $760 million in the case of the Northern Lights). The strategic choice to acquire such an infrastructure is influenced by several factors, such as the composition of the fumes or even whether or not the installation works. However, it is suitable for most large industrial emitters, especially manufacturing companies, coal-fired power plants that generate electricity, but also the steel and cement sectors and the chemical industry.

Florence Delprat-Jannaud says: “In France, we have very carbon-free energy with renewables, but in China there are a certain number of coal-fired power plants that we cannot imagine replacing suddenly with renewables. That’s why CO2 capture and storage has to go through.”

Even the smallest emitters can play their part in the process by moving towards capture interoperability, while at the same time moving CO2 to storage sites to reduce the impact of investment costs. “The solution for them could also be to combine carbon storage with geothermal energy to generate heat,” reminds Thomas Le Guena.

The government’s “CCS plan” presented before the summer

In another part of the ecosystem, startups and philanthropic foundations are investing in atmospheric capture, which the IPCC encourages in its logic of deploying entire portfolios of solutions in a climate emergency. More expensive than conventional CCS, this technology involves capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere, which can offset widespread carbon emissions. In less than a year, the state of Wyoming will inaugurate a major site specializing in atmospheric capture, with a goal of capturing 5 million tons per year by 2030.

As European nations continue to consider financing methods and mechanisms to build infrastructure and kick-start the sector, Emmanuel Macron has already announced that the government will present a “CCS plan” before the summer. Likewise, this technology will be part of a planned €200 million envelope to accelerate research into decarbonisation solutions.

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