Capturing Carbon Dioxide New German Facility Begins Testing CO2 Sequestration

It is complicated and expensive, but it could ultimately be good for the environment. A German pilot program has now begun testing the safety and usefulness of pumping CO2 emissions underground.


A remote spot in Brandenburg has become a popular destination for politicians in the past few months: the Schwarze Pumpe coal power station near Spremberg. Former SPD leader Kurt Beck visited, as did Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee. Brandenburg's Governor Matthias Platzeck has been there several times.

The attraction? Over the last two years, Swedish power supplier Vattenfall has built a pilot program to demonstrate how CO2 emissions from coal plants can be captured and pumped underground. The technology, known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), could play a major role in the future of coal-fired energy sources. CCS may give the coal business, regarded as a harmful player in global warming, a much-needed green touch.

The €70 million project officially kicked off on Tuesday. Top managers from Vattenfall gathered at the opening along with political bigwigs such as Thomas de Maiziere, Angela Merkel's chief of staff in the Chancellory. Governor Platzeck was there as well.

How carbon sequestration works.

How carbon sequestration works.

In truth, by the time Tuesday's mini-ceremony took place, the complex had already been running for a few days. Guests could watch as carbon emissions were loaded into a waiting tanker truck. The power plant being used to test the project's feasibility is 350 kilometers (217 miles) away from the CO2 storage site. In the next three years, Vattenfall plans to pump 100,000 tons of CO2 from the Schwarze Pumpe site into a nearly depleted deposit of natural gas in Saxony-Anhalt.

But CCS technology still has a way to go before it can hit the markets:

  • Power plant technology is still in the development stages. The current pilot program has an output of barely 30 megawatts. In 2015, Vattenfall wants to open two model power stations in Germany and Denmark. In contrast to the current project, these will produce meaningful quantities of electricity. This technology, however, only works in new, purpose-built power stations. Refitting old ones is not a possibility. Vatenfall's competitor RWE has announced that it will build a 450-megawatt model CCS power plant in Hürth, nine kilometers southwest of Cologne. But CCS will only be viable in the marketplace with power stations that produce upwards of 1,000 megawatts -- difficult given that CCS plants are currently much less efficient that traditional plants.

  • The storage technology is still being tested. The most important test facility is at the Geo-Research Center in Potsdam (GFZ). For the last two months, scientists have been injecting CO2 through 800-meter-deep bore holes into a depleted gas reservoir. The scientists want to find out how the gas behaves underground and how long it is likely to remain there. Estimates vary betwen 1,000 and 10,000 years when it comes to the question of how long the gas must remain in the ground to have any positive effect on the climate at all.
  • It also remains unclear exactly how C02 can be transported before storage. As of yet, there is no legal framework for the building of pipelines between power plants and storage sites. Such guidelines are currently being discussed within the European Union. But the construction of such pipelines would likely run into considerable political and public opposition.

Still, energy companies have high hopes for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide. In the best-case scenario, the process will be ready for widespread implementation in 2020 -- too late to help meet short-term climate goals. There is political pressure, though, to make the project work. Germany needs "powerful new power stations and efficient, modern coal-fired plants are part of that," Chancellor Angela Merkel said this week.

Environmental groups complain that development costs for the new technology are too high and that the project may help climate-harming coal-fired power plants maintain a foothold. A consortium of 99 organizations calling themselves the "Climate Alliance" invited protesters to Tuesday's opening in Brandenburg.

After his visit to the Schwarze Pumpe site three weeks ago, then SPD head Kurt Beck seemed only moderately impressed. "One sees clearly that it is far more than just a theoretical beginning," Beck said politely. "It is one of a number of solutions to the climate problem." But carbon storage is certainly not a panacea.


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