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Pilot storage projects - How important are they?

For its recent Open Forum meeting in Venice, CO2GeoNet - the European Network of Excellence on the geological storage of carbon dioxide - chose to put some particular focus during its presentation and discussion on storage pilot projects. This was partly in response to the new report on storage pilots by the Zero Emission Technology Platform (ZEP) and partly as a result of the obvious slow down in the European CCS demonstration programme, with the failure of any CCS project to win funds from the first round of the European Commission's NER300 programme. There is a notable shortage of captured CO2 to store in Europe - a shortage that could now continue for another four or five years.

For several years, identification of storage sites has lagged behind the development of capture technology, to the extent that there were increasing concerns that storage could be a bottleneck for CCS demonstration and deployment. However, work in recent years by bodies such as CO2GeoNet and its members has accelerated our knowledge of storage (injection, modelling, monitoring, remediation and closure) so that, with the delays in the demonstration projects, geologists suddenly find that they have time on their side. This presents them with the opportunity to now refine and further improve the technologies and techniques for the safe storage of CO2. The best way to do this – especially in the absence of larger-scale demonstration projects, is by using pilot storage projects.

During the Open Forum there were a number of descriptions of ongoing pilot projects in Europe (mainly Ketzin in Germany, K-12B in The Netherlands and Hontomin in Spain), the USA (the Decatur Project in the Illinois Basin) and Australia (the Otaway Project in Victoria) and descriptions of new planned pilots - including a pilot injection in Skagerrak, Denmark, one in Longyearbyen on Svalbard and plans for injection into a Jurassic aquifer in central Poland. In addition, there was a whole session on "Public perception studies and their possible relevance for the new pilot sites".

The topic of Public perception was seen by many participants as one of the major drivers behind establishing more pilot storage projects. Pilot projects in Europe are generally planned, designed and licensed to store no more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime. As a result, they are considerably smaller than demonstration projects which could be expected to store around 1,000,000 tonnes of CO2 every year once in operation. This means that their visual impact on the area around the injection site is very limited as would be their potential impact on the local environment in the event of any leakage. Often, the carbon dioxide can be delivered by a tanker rather than a pipeline linked to the source, so there are fewer constraints on their siting.

Pilot projects are more clearly recognised as experimental tests that could easily be stopped if necessary. Even the fact that the project is carried out by a research institution rather than "big industry" is generally seen as a plus by the local population. So there is usually a greater acceptance – or, at least, less resistance – to a pilot than a larger-scale demonstration. The successful execution and completion of a pilot project – such projects usually have a much shorter lifetime than demo projects – would also result in increased confidence of the Public and, eventually, the decision-makers and decision-takers.

There are, of course, several technical benefits of pilot projects over larger-scale demonstration projects. Pilot projects can be designed to inject for a certain period of time and then stopped while the possible impacts of the injection are closely monitored. In other instances the injection can be reversed and the carbon dioxide and/or any brines in the host horizon can be extracted to test a variety of parameters. In addition, the pilot storage site could be made – or even specifically designed – to leak to test a range of monitoring and mitigation techniques. No storage site for a demonstration project would ever be so designed or used for experiments in such a way. 

Finally, the costs are far less than for a demonstration-scale storage site, allowing many more potential horizons to be thoroughly studied and tested before making the much more substantial investments of time, effort and funds necessary to locate, characterize and licence the larger sites.

It is very important to realise that pilot storage sites are not just scaled-down demonstration storage sites. They have a very important role to play in the continuing improvement in the technology of storing large amounts of carbon dioxide in the future. Remember, many of the most successful television series have started following a successful pilot episode – there is no reason it cannot be the same for CCS.

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