The fjords of western Norway seem an unlikely place to tackle industrial pollution. But an hour’s drive north of Bergen, the Norwegians recently inaugurated the world’s largest test facility for carbon capture, the process of trapping carbon dioxide before it spews from the stacks of power plants and factories. The Norwegian government spent more than $1 billion to build the facility, a tangle of pipes, scaffolding, and cooling towers overlooking the port of Mongstad. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has called it “Norway’s moon landing.”
That’s quite an investment considering the country’s greenhouse emissions are among the lowest in the developed world. But it’s not domestic CO2 the Norwegians are after. It’s their neighbors’. Beneath the North Sea lie vast reservoirs that have been emptied of oil by state-owned Statoil. “The potential to store [waste CO2] in aquifers under the sea is enormous,” says Tore Amundsen, the managing director of the Technology Centre Mongstad.
In theory, Amundsen should face no shortage of customers from countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where plans for underground storage of waste CO2 have run into opposition from environmental groups. Norway’s oil industry could benefit, too, as the process of undersea injection would force residual oil and gas deposits out of the seabed.
While it’s integral to the fight against global warming, carbon capture has had a slow start. The International Energy Agency says it expects the technology to account for as much as 20 percent of the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to a maximum of two degrees by 2050. The European Union has promised more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in financing for carbon-capture projects, but with the region’s economy in crisis, national governments haven’t provided the loan guarantees required for the work to go forward.
Yet the need has never been greater, says Jon Gibbins, a professor at the University of Edinburgh specializing in carbon-capture and power-plant engineering. The U.S. is awash in cheap shale gas, while worldwide, coal consumption, led by China and India, has risen more than 50 percent over the past decade. “We’ve got far too much, far too cheap fossil fuel” to ignore carbon capture, Gibbins says.
To jump-start development, the Norwegians have invited companies to try out carbon-capture technologies at Mongstad. The tests are carried out using emissions from a gas-fired power plant that adjoins the facility. French engineering group Alstom, for example, is testing a process in which emissions are sprayed with chilled ammonia to strip out the carbon dioxide.
Even some environmental groups are willing to give carbon capture a chance. “People have rightfully worried that carbon capture is just an excuse” to avoid developing cleaner energy sources, says Mike Childs, head of policy, research, and science at Friends of the Earth in Britain. “While we want to move to a system of 100 percent renewable energy, that will take time.”
Amundsen says the processes being tested at Mongstad would add 30 percent to 50 percent to the cost of electricity generated by a conventional gas- or coal-fired power plant. That’s roughly on a par with wind- and solar-generated power, and Amundsen expects prices to come down sharply as the technology matures. Norway is considering a plan to expand Mongstad from a test site into a full-scale facility that would scrub all CO2 emissions from the adjacent power plant and a nearby refinery, at an estimated cost of $4 billion.
The country can’t import CO2, though, unless other countries come up with billions to build their own carbon-capture plants and pay the Norwegians for storage. And while existing gas pipelines could be modified to transport carbon at relatively modest cost, burying it under the seabed would be expensive. What’s more, Norway could face competition from the Dutch port of Rotterdam, which has a plan to become a hub for CO2 transshipment to North Sea storage sites. Rotterdam has the advantage of being closer than Norway to most of Europe’s major industrial regions.
Amundsen is unfazed by these challenges. “Norway has an interest to see that oil and gas remain an important energy source for the future,” he says. “We’re so incredibly rich, we can actually afford to do it.”