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CCS and... New Zealand?

When you think about carbon capture and storage (CCS), New Zealand is far from being a country that immediately springs to mind. The large majority of people would be much more likely to think about Hobbits and the many other creatures that people Middle Earth. So it might come as something of a surprise that my recent visit to that wonderful country resulted in my spending a significant part of my (admittedly limited) spare time thinking about CCS.

For a geologist, in particular, New Zealand is a fascinating country, sitting as it does on the junction between two major tectonic plates, with its frequent earthquakes, active volcanoes and many signs of geothermal activity such as geysers, boiling mud pools and hot springs. For a geologist whose career has focused almost exclusively on energy issues, mainly energy supplies, New Zealand is even more interesting with its major hydroelectric and geothermal potential which together cover over 70 per cent of the country's electricity demand (for those interested in energy tourism, I can strongly recommend visits to the geothermal power plants in the volcanic area north of Lake Taupo and the very impressive, fully underground, hydro plant at Lake Manapouri that alone produces 14 per cent of New Zealand's electricity). Sitting in the path of the Roaring Forties, it may be surprising that wind power still only provides around 5 per cent of the electricity, though there are plans to grow this share significantly.

This leaves slightly less than 25 per cent of the electricity to be supplied by fossil fuels, with the larger part from natural gas and less than 5 per cent from coal. While New Zealand produces close to 5 million tonnes of coal a year, more than half of this is exported to a number of countries in Australasia and less than 2 million tonnes are consumed in the country. While some people will think that 2 million tonnes is a large amount of coal, it is a relatively small quantity compared with most developed and several developing countries. For example, its closest neighbour, Australia, consumes around 145 million tonnes of coal a year from an annual production of over 450 million tonnes (the balance being exported). In addition, around 2 million tonnes of coal are what are burned annually in one 800 MWe coal-fired power plant.

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/19/TSS_Earnslaw.jpg/800px-TSS_Earnslaw.jpgSo what particularly stimulated me to reflect about New Zealand and CCS? Strangely enough it was one of New Zealand's many tourist attractions which I did not even associate with energy production. In Queenstown, the self-styled 'adrenaline capital of the world' (think bungy - think Queenstown) one of the less adrenaline-charged activities is a trip on the TSS Earnslaw across the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. The Earnslaw is a coal-fired steamer, and therein ays the problem.

New Zealand has one of the most pristine environments in the world, sparkling clean water and some of the freshest air you can breathe. Into this environment the Earnslaw sent out a cloud of black smoke that could be seen for many kilometres. Now, I admit to retaining a romantic image of the 'days of steam' from my schooldays when train-spotting was a major interest, so I expected to want to sail on the Earnslaw and watch the coal-fired boilers being stoked. But, being increasingly supportive of a clean environment, I could not bring myself to do it. I am certainly not advocating that such steam-driven relics should now be pensioned off! They are an important part of our history and heritage and it is good that future generations see how their ancestors lived and developed. It is also a timely reminder that many forms of transport cause very significant pollution, including carbon dioxide. So while they marvel at their ancestors' hard work and ingenuity, they should also think of the pollution that we created that has brought about our changing climate.

Of course, the black smoke is not carbon dioxide but particulate matter that comes from burning the coal. In many countries we do not see this black smoke coming from our coal-fired power stations as we can use different technologies to capture and remove the particulates from the flue gases. As a result of this cleaning up of the emissions, we do not realise that our fossil-fuel power station are still highly polluting. We can take out the black particulates - visible pollution - but we do not yet take out the invisible pollution such as the carbon dioxide that poses an even greater threat to our global environment than the particulates. It really is a case if you don't see it you don't worry about it!

So, for me at least, the Earnslaw served as a sharp reminder that we are still emitting far too much pollution, in particular carbon dioxide, into our environment. This was why a tourist attraction in New Zealand served to me as a stark reminder of the need for CCS.

I think it is worth adding here that in spite of its relatively small population and low fossil fuel burn, New Zealand is active in the area of CCS being looked at seriously as a site for a large-scale CCS demonstration project at Mataura in Southlands. The project would be based on the gasification of local lignite to produce approximately 1.2 million tonnes per annum  of fertiliser (urea). The process would result in approximately 1.2 million tonnes per number of carbon dioxide which would be transported by pipeline for storage in onshore deep saline formations approximately 100km from the source. Further information about the project can be found on the Institute's web site. This project also acts to remind us that it is not simply the power sector that should be investing in CCS. In fact, many industrial processes would benefit from deploying CCS sooner rather than later.

So, while climate change may not have been one of the threats that had to be faced in Middle Earth, it is very much one that we must face and overcome and New Zealand, for one, is doing its part.

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