Climate Change

COP28 side-event on carbon capture technologies in cement sector highlights key barriers and successes

Electricity demand, CO2 leakage risks to drinking water and high costs among key issues  

By Manas Agrawal
Published: Friday 08 December 2023
Photo: iStock

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is one of the biggest pathways that big industries and energy sector are relying on to reduce their emissions in the race to become net-zero. CCUS involves the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2), generally from large point sources such as power plants and industries using fossil-fuels. 

Capturing is done through a wide range of technologies, like various pre-combustion technologies, oxy-fuel technology, direct separation technology and others. The captured CO2 is either stored in underground geological formations or utilised in a wide range of applications, including industrial processes, fuel manufacturing and concrete curing.

CCUS is particularly important for the cement sector, where there is less scope for emission reduction from other pathways in the long run. The Global Cement and Concrete Association’s (GCCA) roadmap to net-zero suggested that CCUS is expected to contribute around 36 per cent of net emission reduction in the sector by 2050.  Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop CCUS projects in the sector. But the deployment of the technology is difficult and faces several economic, technological and ecological barriers. 

International Energy Agency (IEA) credible pathways to 1.5 degrees Celsius point out that even in a low overshoot scenario, carbon capture plants of around 1.2 Gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 capacity need to be implemented in hard-to-abate sectors by 2030, against the roughly 0.3 Gt CO2 capacity currently planned.

The GCCA 2050 cement and concrete industry roadmap for Net Zero

Source: GCCA

A side-event on CCUS technology in the cement sector at the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has put the spotlight on key challenges and progress of carbon capture projects for developing and developed countries. 

Some of the key challenges discussed during the event are discussed further.

Long implementation time

A speaker from Canadian think-tank CCS Knowledge Centre highlighted that implementation of a commercial-scale carbon capture technology, from feasibility studies to development and final construction and risk assessment, can typically take more than six-years to complete. Additionally, storage or utilisation solutions also need to be in place, without which capturing is of no value. 

Although there are number of CCUS projects in cement plants globally, all of them are in development stages. To put this into perspective, there are 41 CCS facilities in operation globally, 26 under construction and 325 in development, according to Global CCS Institute’s facility database. Of the 41 operational facilities, none of them is from the cement industry.  

Heidelberg Materials’s plant in Brevik Norway is set to be fully operational by 2024, which will make it the world’s first operational carbon capture facility at a cement plant. The facility will capture 400,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. The company’s Canada plant in Edmonton, which is projected to start commercial capture of CO2 by 2026, is set to be the world's first carbon neutral cement plant.

Support from the federal and provincial government has been key in the success of the project, Beth-Hardy Valiaho, vice-president at the CCS Knowledge Centre, noted at the side-event. The Edmonton facility is aiming to capture over 1 million tonne CO2 per year. Other CCUS plants that plan to start operation in the next few years are CEMEX plant in Rudersdorf, Germany (2026) and Holcim Olympus project in Milaki, Greece (2028).

It is interesting to note that most of these projects are located in the Global North. While China and India, who are the top producers of cement globally, have only a few projects in early stages of development.

According to Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment’s Decarbonizing India: Cement sector report, CCUS could be one of the recommended pathways for reducing emissions in Indian cement sector in the long run but not by 2030, especially after witnessing the slow progress on CCUS in the Indian cement sector.

Dalmia Cement is the only one known for announcing a large-scale carbon capture demonstration plant in 2019 which is still awaited.

Risks with storage 

Studies on the impacts of CO2 leakage in geological storages mentioned during the event emphasise potential risks in CO2 storage related to groundwater contamination. A researcher from the University of Texas, Katherine Romanack, working on CO2 storage explained that while CO2 will be stored at depths greater than 800 metres, which is below underground water, there are potential risks to human health and marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the form of CO2 or brine migration into water. 

She further added that CO2 leakage can decrease the pH of water, making it acidic. 

Co2 is captured at depths more than 800 metres. Source: COP28 side event on CCS

These studies highlighted various impacts of CO2 leakage/migration — leakage in aquifers can mobilise heavy metals, such as iron and manganese, in water, which can make it harmful for human health.

Moreover, the environmental impacts of leakage seem to cover small surface areas under the seabed, not affecting the majority of seabed, but if the gas leaks into aquifer, seawater or atmosphere, it can disperse and affect a much larger area than below ground/seabed. 

However, Romanack pointed out that such leakages are rare and CO2 is not likely to reach groundwater. She added that if, in an unlikely event, it does, the impact will be transient and localised.

Financing CCS

CCS is one of the biggest mitigation measures that is being banked upon, but it is also one of the most expensive. Examples of projects that have been implemented in Europe, the United States or Canada all have government support as a common factor. There is a lot of operational cost that goes into piloting CCS projects that makes it difficult for cement plants to effectively implement projects. 

Jonas Helseth from Bellona Foundation pointed out the financial barriers to commissioning CCS projects. He underlined that storage infrastructure needs a lot of investment and these projects are unpopular because public money is being spent for industrial benefit in most of the countries. 

While the US already has storage infrastructure, most of the world does not. Therefore, there is a need for a better model like creating demand for low-carbon cement and concrete, through which these projects can be funded, said Helseth. 

Another panellist at the event, Claude Lorea, director from GCCA, also highlighted key finance requirements in form of grants and low interest rate loans should be provided to these projects.  

High demand of electricity

Carbon capture part of CCUS is the most energy intensive process, it was further highlighted at teh evenmt. The process can almost double the electricity demand of the cement plant, highlighted Lorea. For countries like India, which are planning to increase coal consumption to meet rising energy demand, this is a big challenge. Moreover, plants need to look at renewable sources to meet this electricity demand to effectively reduce their fossil fuel dependence. 

Major CCUS deployment by 2050 needed

There is a need to increase the capture capacity of CO2 by 2050. Global CO2 capture in IEA net-zero scenario should increase from 1.6 Gt in 2030 to 7.6 Gt in 2050, underlining that CCUS is particularly important for the cement sector.

On the bright side, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) synthesis report, the global geological storage capacity for CO2 storage is estimated to be around 1,000 GtCO2, which is more than the storage requirements till year 2100 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and given that the storage sites are appropriately selected and managed, CO2 can be permanently isolated from the atmosphere.

The report added that currently, global rates of CCS deployment are far below those in modelled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C to 2°C. Enabling conditions such as policy instruments, greater public support and technological innovation could reduce these barriers.

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