The role of carbon storage in achieving net-zero targets
April 8, 2022
By Gregory Mirabella
As major energy companies embrace renewal energy, engineers build on their skills and knowledge to meet the challenges of carbon storage This illustration shows the carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) process, which reduces CO2 emissions with sustainable storage underground. (© istock.com/VectorMine)
The energy sector has begun to embrace renewable energy sources. Many of the major players in the industry have announced net-zero targets. They are investing in more sustainable solutions such as alternative fuels; mixing natural gas with hydrogen; and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
CO2 storage is a core component of the CCUS value chain as permanent storage of CO2 enables large-scale emissions reduction. Any net-zero model or projection requires a massive ramp-up of CO2 storage. According to International Energy Administration estimates(opens in new tab/window), storage of carbon needs to grow from its current level of around 40 metric tons (MT) per year to more than 5,000 MT per year by 2050.
The good news is that suitable geological formations exist to accommodate such an increase. After CO2 is captured, it must be compressed and injected into reservoirs of porous rock beneath impermeable strata. Many deep saline formations and depleted oil and gas reservoirs fit this profile. Further, they offer sufficient capacity — as long as the many engineering challenges can be overcome to store carbon at such a scale.
As CO2 storage is a process-based industry, engineers from the conventional energy sector find their skills and experience in geology, engineering, chemistry and compression to be highly valued. But to meet the environmental challenges facing the world, more engineers will be needed in this sector as important CO2 emissions-reducing technologies gain momentum.
Diverse carbon storage needs
It‘s easy to understand the necessity of storing carbon generated by power plants. What isn’t so simple to appreciate is how much carbon is produced across the entire industrial landscape: steel, cement, refining, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and many other areas of manufacturing. CO2 is even emitted from non-energy materials, such as the limestone used in cement. Once this carbon is captured, it needs somewhere to go.
Thus, carbon storage is one of the cornerstones of the decarbonization efforts of the energy sectors.
Engineering talent is urgently needed to capture, transport and store CO2 using existing technologies as well as in exploring research pathways to develop new approaches. More efficient ways must be found of injecting carbon into saline aquifers and depleted oil reservoirs. Further, many within the current oil & gas workforce must be retrained to convert their exploration, extraction and development skills into the field of carbon storage.
Occidental and CO2 storage
International energy company Occidental (Oxy)(opens in new tab/window) is one of the largest energy producers in the United States. Its chemical subsidiary OxyChem(opens in new tab/window) manufactures the building blocks for life-enhancing products. It has also launched a subsidiary known as Oxy Low Carbon Ventures(opens in new tab/window) to advance leading-edge technologies and business solutions that economically grow its business while reducing emissions. This is part of its commitment to advance a lower-carbon world.
Parag Bandyopadhyay(opens in new tab/window), Development Manager for CO2 Storage at Oxy, has been deeply involved in the company’s decarbonization efforts. He has been assessing CO2 storage technologies as well as the many possible ways they could be developed and integrated into operations to achieve Oxy’s net-zero goals.
One of the big challenges he and his team faces is the transfer of existing skills and knowledge from their traditional activities of exploration and production (E&P) reservoir engineering into CCUS and especially CO2 storage. Reservoir engineering typically focuses on rock strata and the many potential ways of extracting conventional energy economically, as well as how to extend the life of a depleted field. There are many similarities with CO2 storage. But engineers must adjust their mindset to one of putting carbon into the ground and keeping it there rather than extraction.
“We need a better understanding of the ability of underground reservoirs to hold and store CO2 for the long term,” Bandyopadhyay said.
When you operate in the energy sector, nothing comes cheap. Investments of hundreds of millions are commonplace. While Oxy was committed to carbon storage investment, Bandyopadhyay realized that the company could waste capital without achieving the desired outcomes. If research was done haphazardly, products and technologies could be incorrectly designed, and new reservoir models and simulations might contain inaccuracies. Such errors could seriously delay the attainment of net-zero targets.
Navigating an ocean of research
Bandyopadhyay entered this new endeavor with enthusiasm, but he soon ran into difficulty in finding the right information: sources that would help Oxy profit from the lessons learned by others along with best practices, research and extant technologies that would speed the energy transition:
We struggled to find answers in an ocean of information. This was slowing down projects and we were unable to deploy capital in an efficient manner. There was high risk that we might make wrong decisions by using unsuitable designs, negatively impacting the entire value chain. We wanted to avoid reinventing the wheel in our CO2 storage efforts.
He quickly realized that he needed to find an efficient means of benchmarking the CO2 storage initiatives of competitors and any progress in other industries as a way to reduce project development timelines, contain costs, and improve quality and results. Bandyopadhyay explained:
The pace of technological change and the emergence of new business models have added an extra layer of complexity for oil & gas professionals, which pushed us out of our comfort zone. Elsevier’s research tools have provided real help in filling the knowledge gaps to enable us to make informed decisions and improve outcomes. Our team recently investigated the CO2 storage capacity and injection performance characteristics in Permian basin reservoirs, and our work has been accepted for presentation at an upcoming industry conference.
Elsevier products are being harnessed at Oxy in the reskilling of the existing workforce as well as in reducing the unpredictability factors that accompany any transition into unknown territory. Bandyopadhyay cited one example of gaining technical confidence on very specific metrics related to the number of reservoir barrels and tons of CO2 that could be stored as well as gaining a greater understanding of the risk factors involved:
The ability to go through an extensive knowledge catalog and find results in Elsevier products that are pertinent to what we are doing saved us months in CO2 storage research and development. Elsevier tools enabled us to make rapid progress as we can read the most relevant journal articles and subsurface research. This saves us from traveling down the wrong path by showing us how things could be done differently or more efficiently.
Elsevier’s R&D solutions for energy and natural resources, such as Geofacets, Knovel and ScienceDirect, provide easy access to up-to-date information, including information that may be critical for CO2 storage projects, like thermophysical properties, well data, and environmental data.