European countries have ambitious aims to increase their use of renewable power. Windmills are rolling out on hills and mountains across Europe. Solar panels are being added to our homes and architects are incorporating them into their designs for state-of-the-art public and private buildings.
Yet energy analysts warn we are likely to be dependent on fossil fuels for several more decades at least. In the UK, Sir Nicholas Stern, commissioned to advise British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the economics of climate change, forecast carbon-dioxide emitting fuels like gas and coal would still make up half the world’s energy supply by 2050.
Moreover, dirty coal seems back in fashion again, boosted by high gas prices and the growing energy needs of fast-modernising economies like China and India. According to The Economist, in China two 500MW coal-fired power plants come on line every week while the US has 150 new coal plants in the planning stages.
"This is going to be an industry of the same magnitude as the oil industry is today."
former chairman of Shell
There is a strong argument, then, that saving our planet means developing ways to stop fossil fuels from releasing high levels of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. One of the most promising solutions is CO2 capture and storage, also called CO2 sequestration. This involves capturing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere by large emission sources such as power plants, turning it into a dense fluid and storing it in layers of porous rock.
"The technology is already there," says Laurent Jammes, marketing and technique manager for Schlumberger Carbon Services. "What we need to do is to win confidence in it. It’s very important to show that CO2 can be stored with total security." Scientists and industry must demonstrate, for instance, that carbon storage will not affect the environment and human health.
Jammes is part of a EUREKA Cluster partnership of French, German and Italian researchers which have been developing technologies to ensure a safe and efficient implementation of CO2 storage sites.
One of the main objectives is that CO2 does not escape once it is stored in underground formations. Computer models and monitoring techniques allow for the controlling of the injection of CO2 into rock and the long term behaviour of CO2 and for action to be taken to prevent leakage. With support from EUROGIA, the EUREKA Cluster for energy, they gathered together an impressive collection of professionals from both the public and the private sector, including the backing of French oil company TOTAL and Italian energy company ENI. Their work was funded in two separate EUROGIA projects COSMOS 1 and COSMOS 2.
"When you store CO2, you drill a well - a hole - deep underground," explains Jammes. "The well is cemented and cased for consolidation and zonal isolation." On COSMOS 1, the EUROGIA team has successfully studied novel cementing techniques and casing materials to prevent stored carbon from leaking through wells. "These materials are specifically developed to resist CO2 from attacking them." says Jammes.
On COSMOS 2, the team trialled computer models to predict the alteration of injected CO2 and to verify the integrity of the storage, as well as monitoring techniques to directly observe these phenomena. Scientists have shown that within decades or centuries the CO2 dissolves and within centuries or millennia reacts with elements in the rock to form new minerals. "We have introduced monitoring sensors to detect any evolution of the site that could lead to a leakage, in order to stop it before it happens.." says Jammes. "Simulation tools can also help you to identify actions which will allow you to prevent leakage before it happens."
There are examples of carbon storage in action, such as Sleipner T, a North Sea gas rig run by Norway’s state-owned oil company Statoil, which has been storing CO2 since 1997. However, in general the use of carbon storage in the world energy industry continues to be limited. Jammes is hoping the COSMOS work will play an important role in increasing the use of the technology. "The goal is to deploy it widely in order to reduce the emission of green house gases and prevent global warming," he says. "This could probably cut total CO2 emissions by a quarter."
Carbon storage is increasingly on the agenda as governments look to substantially cut CO2 emissions. "All the work done in COSMOS will be at the cornerstone of discussions," says Jammes. He thinks the materials developed in COSMOS will become a global standard in the future. "COSMOS 2 (due to be completed in April 2010) will demonstrate that we have ways to ensure the security of a site."
The presence of European companies and researchers in the development of carbon storage is important as consumers across the 27 member countries demand solutions to the problem of global warming. It is also important, say analysts, for Europe to position itself at the forefront of what will also become a profitable business. "This will be one of the big new industries in the world, worth close to $1,000bn," said Lord Oxburgh, a former chairman of Shell at an energy debate at the end of last year. "This is going to be an industry of the same magnitude as the oil industry is today."