Capture of CO2 and Hydrogen as Part of Latin America's Energy Future

Two new green hydrogen projects will be installed in Antofagasta, in northern Chile. The country's Energy Ministry aims for hydrogen to contribute up to 20 percent in the accumulated reduction of internal carbon emissions by 2050. CREDIT: HyEx Initiative
Two new green hydrogen projects will be installed in Antofagasta, in northern Chile. The country's Energy Ministry aims for hydrogen to contribute up to 20 percent in the accumulated reduction of internal carbon emissions by 2050. CREDIT: HyEx Initiative
  • by Emilio Godoy (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service

But these technologies require substantial investments and the deployment of infrastructure, which raises doubts about their viability.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) recommend their use to reduce pollutant emissions and keep temperature increases to below 2°C.

Luca Ferrari, a faculty member at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Geosciences Centre, questioned the viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

"These are strategies for not tackling fossil fuel consumption," he told IPS. "CCS is just spending more energy than you normally use. You have to generate the carbon dioxide (CO2) and then build equipment to capture and store it, with results that we're not sure are permanent."

The technology involves the capture of CO2 produced by large industrial plants, and its compression for transport and subsequent injection into deep salt formations, unmineable coal seams or declining oil fields, in order to prevent the release of this gas generated by human activities that are responsible for global warming.

The oil industry uses it to sequester and inject it into mature wells to extract oil or gas, a technique known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

But deep storage poses risks of CO2 leakage or seismic induction.

The production of what its proponents call green hydrogen is based on methane steam reforming, which involves mixing the first gas with the second and heating it to obtain synthetic gas. But it produces CO2.

Another process uses electrolysis, whereby hydrogen is separated from oxygen using electrical energy as a separator. The gas reacts with the air, generates electricity and releases steam. Electrolysis also allows both elements to recombine to form water and thus conceive fluid.

Outlook in Latin America

In Latin America, CCS, which needs high CO2 prices to be profitable, shows less progress than hydrogen.

The Santos Basin CO2-EOR plant, owned by Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras and located off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, has captured and injected some 10 million tons of CO2 into the Lula, Sapinhoá and Lapa oil fields since 2013. By 2025, its cumulative goal is to process a total of 40 million tons.

Mexico has a CO2 storage potential of 100 billion tons and Brazil has a potential of four trillion tons, the largest in the region.

Between 2013 and 2016, the World Bank provided Mexico with technical assistance to develop a pre-feasibility study for a CO2 capture venture at a gas-fired combined cycle plant, a review of best practices on combined EOR and geological storage of CO2, as well as an analysis of regulatory developments in the country.

In 2014, Mexico's ministry of energy published a Technology Roadmap on CCS, updated in 2018, which proposed a national strategy and inventory and the creation of a centre for technological research and development and project execution.

The exploratory stage included a CO2 capture demonstration project and a CCS and EOR project.

The Mexican government identified 198 fixed industrial sources of CO2 emissions, such as automotive, power generation, cement, glass, metallurgical, steel, mining and agribusiness plants.

It also identified sites to deposit CO2 and 59 mature hydrocarbon fields where EOR could be used.

But the government of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador abandoned these plans, arguing a lack of funds.

There are at least 15 CCS projects in operation and seven under construction around the world. But the IEA, the agency that brings together the industrialised countries with the highest energy consumption, estimates that 2,000 will be needed by 2040.

The IEA's Tracking Clean Energy Progress (TCEP) reports, which assess the status of 39 technologies critical to curbing the climate crisis, indicate that only seven are moving in the right direction, and CCS is not among them.

The Global Status of CCS 2019 Report: Targeting Climate Change, released in December 2019 by the non-governmental Global CCS Institute, calculates that this technology can contribute nine percent of cumulative emissions reduction by 2050.

The average annual volume of CO2 captured and trapped is estimated at 1.5 billion tons between 2019 and 2050, when it would reach 2.8 billion.

Ferrari said the recipe is to reduce industrial and transportation activity. "These are technological solutions that sound good because they give us the idea that we can continue with our consumerist lifestyle, that human ingenuity allows us to continue to move ahead as we are," the professor said.

Fuel of the future?

In this region, where green hydrogen is largely unknown, Brazil, Costa Rica and Chile are progressing towards its use.

Brazil was a pioneer in the area, introducing the region's first hydrogen bus in São Paulo in 2009. But since then it has focused more on sugarcane ethanol for transportation, renewable sources and hydropower.

Fausto Posso, director of the master´s degree programme at the private University of Santander in northwestern Colombia, said hydrogen is technically but not economically viable.

"It is much more efficient than fossil fuels, both for use in fuel cells and for turbines and internal combustion engines," he explained to IPS from the Colombian city of Bucaramanga. "It is also much less polluting, because the by-product is water. With the energy structure of production and supply of renewables, the trend is towards electrolysis."

Brazil is building an energy storage plant in São Paulo, where hydroelectric and solar energy is converted into hydrogen via electrolysis, and with an annual storage capacity of 200 megawatts/hour, at a cost of 9.36 million dollars.

Another initiative explores the potential for large-scale deployment of hydro-solar systems in western Brazil, with an investment of 14 million dollars and an annual capacity of 730 megawatts/hour. In June, the country began drawing up a map of the sector.

In Costa Rica, the state-owned Costa Rican Oil Refinery (RECOPE) and the company Ad Astra Rocket formed an alliance in 2011 to build an experimental hydrogen centre, in a pact broken in 2015 and which in 2017 was transformed into the Sustainable Transportation Ecosystem.

Hydrogen is part of the National Decarbonisation Plan of that Central American nation, which has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2050. To this end, the IDB Lab, an innovation laboratory of the Inter-American Development Bank, is financing the project "The Road to Decarbonization: Promoting the Hydrogen Economy in Costa Rica," at a cost of 3.9 million dollars.

Meanwhile, Chile began to promote a so-called green hydrogen economy in January with the Cavendish Mission, and is drafting a national strategy.

Generating this gas requires significant energy, and subsidies are needed to develop it.

The Hydrogen Council, a global alliance of 13 major energy, industrial and transportation companies, sponsored the study "Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness: A cost perspective," launched in January, which reviews 40 technologies used in 35 applications, including commercial vehicles, trains, furnaces and industrial conditioning.

In 22 of them, the costs incurred by a user over the lifetime of the application of one of these technologies will be comparable to other low-carbon alternatives by 2030.

Without a policy to boost the hydrogen economy, "it will be very difficult. We are talking about setting up an infrastructure similar to that of fossil fuels," Posso said.

"The issue is achieving massive use to lower costs," he explained. "Hydrogen is not going to exist alone, but with electricity, with batteries, in an energy pool in which they will complement each other. It's going to require subsidies in the initial stage."

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