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I like what I don't see

My first job after leaving university was with British Petroleum as an exploration geologist. My first posting was to Canada and my second was to Australia where I was based in Melbourne. I have many great memories of my time 'down under', including driving along the Great Ocean Road which heads south-west out of Melbourne and follows what is, especially for geologists, a beautiful coastline to South Australia. At that time BP had an exploration project on the lovely and striking Otway Peninsula so it was a particularly popular area for a technical visit.

This was way back in the 1970s and carbon capture and storage (CCS) was unheard of, mainly because we had not started to recognise let alone worry about global warming. Our only concerns at that time regarding fossil fuels was to find more of them, not as we now know, the role burning them played in changing our climate. We have learnt a lot in the close to 40 years since my first visit to the region and now, if anybody mentions Otway Project my first thought is about the CCS project that is being undertaken there. This is a very important project for the future of CCS and one of the first of its kind in the world, known to all those who work in the field. I have never undertaken a technical visit to this project.

So, on my recent visit to Melbourne to meet up with many old friends from our Australia days, we drove down part of the Great Ocean Road and I was sorely tempted to propose to our hosts for that weekend a visit to the project site. It would have meant quite a long drive from their home to the site and, I finally started to think, what exactly would they see when they got there? The answer is... very little!

In brief, the Otway CCS project takes an invisible gas from a gas field around 1600 metres below the surface (so unseen by the observer), transports it a couple of kilometres through a steel pipe and then pumps it deep underground (over 2000m) into an equally unseen geological storage site. A more detailed and technical description of the project can be found both here at the Institute and on the project's website. With so little to actually see, why is such a project so important for our energy future? Simply, it shows that we can identify suitable geological storage sites into which we can successfully inject large volumes of CO2. Even more importantly, it proves that we can monitor the movement of the gas and that it will stay where we put it  otherwise all the effort and energy used to capture, transport and store the COwould have been wasted.

Unless we can do this at Otway and at other storage demonstration sites around the world we must dramatically reduce and very soon stop using fossil fuels to meet our energy needs. Unfortunately, reducing our dependence on such fuels is proving to be an extremely difficult and costly objective even in the world's richest and most technologically-advanced countries. For others it is simply not possible at this time.

If somebody said to you "my hands are now empty, now they are holding an invisible object and now they are empty again" would you be impressed? I doubt it and, partly for that reason, I decided not to suggest visiting the project site, especially as it would have added extra hours of driving to our day! However, it did not prevent an energy discussion and the inevitable question: why not replace all the coal-fired power plants in the state of Victoria with renewables? Now, the Otway peninsula is in the 'roaring forties', a region of strong and near constant winds so would be a good location for wind turbines, especially on the many spectacular cliffs around the coast. However, when I explained that replacing Victoria's coal-fired plant capacity of over 6000 MWe would require thousands of such wind turbines, the 'invisible' CCS technology suddenly became much more attractive! In other words, what you like may be what you don't see.

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