The French are banking on further decarbonising the economy

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

On November 8th, Emmanuel Macron presented France’s strategy to decarbonize its industry after a meeting with representatives of the 50 sites that emit the most greenhouse gases in the country. The President of the Republic pointed out that this national strategy is guided by “planning through technology”, mentioning the three main systems that could be put in place.

The first technology is notorious and is already growing rapidly in France as it is the zero-carbon hydrogen sector in which France aims to become a leader. The second is the utilization of biomass within the framework of non-alternative uses. The last is carbon capture and sequestration and its industrial reuse, which remains relatively unknown.

“It is important to prepare a large-scale deployment of this technology, since it is the only one that allows this decarbonization for specific platforms,” ​​stressed the Head of State, taking the Dunkirk site as an example.

Multiple capture processes and as many geological contexts for storage

As the name suggests, the CCS (Editor’s note: for Carbon capture and storage) consists of capturing CO2 from the exhaust gases of factories and other industrial sites and isolating it from the atmosphere by storing it in underground geological formations. There are three different recording methods for this.

First of all, afterburning, which aims to wash the vapors in contact with a solvent that absorbs the gas and then heated in a regeneration tower to separate the CO2: the Dunkirk platform uses this model. Further upstream, pre-combustion has a more limited application, allowing CO2 to be extracted from fuels such as oil or coal. Finally, oxy-combustion has the advantage of facilitating the absorption of carbon, favoring oxygen to obtain a more concentrated smoke than with ambient air.

Of the major geological contexts that can store carbon, there are three: ultrabasic rocks, non-hydrocarbon reservoirs, and saline aquifers.

“The former are numerous in Iceland but rare in France because of the volcanic context,” explains Thomas Le Guénan, research engineer specializing in CO2 storage. On the other hand, in the Pau region we find reservoirs that have run out of hydrocarbons to store because they have already contained gas or oil.

These are rocks with porosities up to 3 kilometers deep that can be tapped by drilling to allow the gas to flow inside. Saline acuphers are quite present in the Paris Basin and are close to depleted reservoirs with the only difference that they have never contained hydrocarbons. “This means that they are cheaper in the long term and CO2 takes the place of brine,” specifies the expert from the Federal Office for Geology and Mining (BRGM).

A creation at the end of the last century

While this technology has recently benefited from increased adoption in France, it has actually been used elsewhere since the late 20th century. Norway was a pioneer in this area, introducing a tax on every tonne of CO2 in the 1990s and launching the first-ever CCS project off its coast in 1996 to capture and store 1 million tonnes each year. “The Americans even injected CO2 into the ground in the 1970s, but to extract more oil and not for climate purposes,” adds Thomas Le Guénan. Nonetheless, the United States today boasts an important ecosystem of startups that are multiplying CCS projects.

“The American government is also banking on the financial incentive with the creation of a tax credit system to encourage initiatives, knowing that there is another one for the production of hydrocarbons,” stresses Florence Delprat-Jannaud, in charge of CO2 capture and storage programs at IFP Energies Innovations.

A France that is lagging behind but targeting geographic areas

When it comes to CCS, Europe is divided in two. The North Sea has been used for oil production for years and is now a natural storage location where, in addition to Norway, other countries such as Great Britain and the Netherlands are positioning themselves. “They are aware of the CCS issue at a high political level,” affirms Thomas Le Guénan. Germany has long banned CO2 storage under pressure from a section of the population that is skeptical about the effects of this technology on real estate.

“Historically, France is more attached to this ‘southern Europe’, but Emmanuel Macron’s recent statements are a positive signal to put this technology on the political agenda,” the BRGM engineer continued.

In France, five zones are actively considering the development of CCS. There is, of course, Dunkirk, where the capture projects are already very concrete and envisage the export of CO2 to storage sites in the North Sea. The reflection is also started on the Le Havre side, where there is also an export of the captured carbon. The BRGM works a lot in the Parisian sedimentary basin and in particular in the Grandpuits (Seine-et-Marne) area, although this mainly contains small emitters of CO2. To the southwest, it is the area of ​​Lacq, a town near Pau, that is under attack for its gas-extracting past. A cross-border project with Spain could also see the light of day. Finally, the Rhone Valley is the last area, from Lyon to Marseille, with the prospect of storage in the Mediterranean, but the scenarios here are less mature.

A necessary change of scale in the years to come

Currently, around thirty large-scale plants around the world capture and store 40 million tons a year: a drop of water compared to the 40 gigatonnes of CO2 emitted each year. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives cause for hope by quantifying the storage capacity of CO2 at 1000 gigatonnes.

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

To illustrate the significant acceleration of CCS, the expert from IFP Energies Nouvelles mentions the example of Dunkirk. The case of the ArcelorMittal site, still at the experimental stage, should make it possible to capture up to half a tonne of CO2 per hour when the industrial scale requires a multiplication of this number by 200 or even 300. Against this background, Thomas Le Guénan advocates the mobilization of big industrialists who have the opportunity to connect to carbon storage nodes or even create one themselves. Evidence of this is the colossal Northern Lights project led by Equinor, TotalEnergies and Shell, the first phase of which will end in a year and a half. From mid-2024, several countries will be able to store their captured CO2 there, up to a limit of 1.5 million tons per year.

Increasing carbon quotas is a profitability lever for CCS

While the EU’s recent adoption of the carbon border tax is a new factor for industrial companies considering CCS to consider, the depreciation in the value of carbon credits traded within the European community is a real boon. Its particularly low level in the 2010s slowed down many projects, but with a renewed increase to currently around 90 euros per tonne, it now plays a stronger incentive role compared to large manufacturers. In fact, the cost of CCS technology is between 50 and 180 euros per tonne of CO2. “This large variation can be explained by the level of carbon concentration, which varies according to the sector, and therefore also by the level of the system used to capture this CO2,” specifies Florence Delprat-Jannaud.

“Industrialists are more confident about the viability of CCS, but carbon variability is still an issue as this ‘market’ dimension is an obstacle to projection,” laments Thomas Le Guénan.

A technology for small and large transmitters

The cost of an infrastructure can range from tens to hundreds of millions of euros (e.g. $760 million in the case of Northern Lights). The strategic decision to acquire such infrastructure is influenced by several factors, such as the composition of the exhaust gases or even the obligation to carry out works on the plant or not. However, it is suitable for most major industrial emitters, particularly manufacturing companies, coal-fired power plants, but also the steel, cement and chemical industries.

“In France we have a very low-carbon energy with renewable energy, but in China there is a certain number of coal-fired power plants that we cannot imagine suddenly replacing with renewable energy,” says Florence Delprat-Jannaud to undergo capture and storage of CO2.”

And even the smallest emitters can have a place in this process, moving towards sharing capture but also transport of CO2 to storage sites to reduce the impact of investment costs. “A solution for them may also be to combine carbon storage with geothermal energy to generate heat at the same time,” says Thomas Le Guénan.

The government presented a “CCS plan” before the summer

In another part of the ecosystem, start-ups and philanthropic funds are investing in atmospheric mapping, which also promotes the IPCC in a logic of deploying all solution portfolios in the face of the climate emergency. This technology is more expensive than traditional CCS and involves capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere, which could offset very diffuse carbon emissions. In just under a year, the state of Wyoming will inaugurate a major site specializing in atmospheric mapping, with an annual target of 5 million tons mapped by 2030.

As European states continue to consider financing methods and mechanisms to build infrastructure and launch the sector, Emmanuel Macron has already announced that the government will come up with a “CCS plan” before the summer. Similarly, this technology will be allocated part of the €200 million budget planned to accelerate research into decarbonization solutions.

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