President Obama announced his sweeping Climate Action Plan on Tuesday, stressing his commitment to use his presidential powers to require U.S. power plants to reduce their CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a former Arctic mining town is preparing to test a cutting-edge underground “rock reservoir” to capture and store CO2.
Ole Arve Misund, director of the University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS), said that while the wheels were set in motion for the project years ago, shifting energy policies in the U.S. certainly have had an influence on the development of the UNIS project, known as the CO2 Lab. Misund cited the U.S. shift away from coal as a particular impetus for the project.
“Coal prices are way down, due to the fact that in the U.S. they have discovered shale gas,” Misund said. “Now the U.S. doesn’t need all of its coal, so they export it to Europe for relatively cheap. Salaries here are so high that the mining company here has had to reduce staff and activity over time.”
With cooperation from the local mining company and partnership with some of the major players on the global energy market - like ConocoPhillips, Total, Norway’s Statoil and Sweden’s Lundin - the CO2 Lab project is designing the technique and technology to capture CO2 emissions and store them underground. More specifically, the lab plans to capture and sequester all of the carbon emissions from Longyearbyen’s coal-fired power plant, making the town a zero emissions “green showcase.” The plant burns between 25,000 and 30,000 tonnes of coal every year to heat and power the city of roughly 2,000 inhabitants.
Scientists with the CO2 lab have already identified the site of the underground CO2 reservoir, and have drilled five exploratory bore holes on site. By analyzing bore hole samples, they have determined that roughly 700 meters below the surface lies a thick layer of sandstone rock ideal for absorbing captured C02 that is pumped down. Above this sandstone “reservoir”, a thick “ceiling” of shale will prevent sequestered carbon from escaping.
Or at least, that is the plan. Scientists have not yet tested the rock reservoir, although they expect to move into the sequestration phase within the year, hopefully on the sooner side.
Misund said that Longyearbyen is an ideal test site for the technology, and UNIS is already producing graduates trained to develop the C02 “value chain,” including carbon sequestration and storage.
“There are many such sites around the world where this is possible, but one of the easiest places to do the research is here, actually,” Misund said. “We have the site so close to our research center and other infrastructure, not like possible sites in the North Sea where it is very expensive to do any drilling.”
Misund said that officials are discussing the possibility of replacing the 1970s-era coal plant with a state-of-the-art facility that can capture carbon directly at the source, and prepare it for pumping into the rock reservoir at the CO2 Lab.
President Obama’s Climate Action Plan also entails federal funding to help protect communities from the severe weather events brought on by climate change, as well as funding to develop renewable energy technology. This would include a proposed $8 billion for investments in innovative technologies that focus on “the avoidance, reduction, or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.”
The UNIS CO2 Lab is located 5 kilometers from Longyearbyen. (Photo: Christi Turner)
The blue triangular structure covers one of five deep wells that have been drilled at the CO2 Lab site, to evaluate the feasibility of storing carbon dioxide on Svalbard. (Photo: Christi Turner)
Using data gathered from wells like the one under this structure, UNIS CO2 Lab scientists have confirmed that there is a suitable CO2 "reservoir" 670 to 970 meters below the surface. (Photo: Christi Turner)
Coal mining was the first major industry in Svalbard, giving rise to what has become the town of Longyearbyen. Over time, ice sheets have removed layers of rock, bringing coal-bearing layers close to the surface. (Photo: Christi Turner)
The town of Longyearbyen was established in 1906, when John Munro Longyear and Frederick Ayer purchased the local coalfields and established the Arctic Coal Company. Originally known as Longyear City, what was once a mining town has transformed into a center of leading scientific research in recent decades. (Photo: Christi Turner)
UNIS CO2 Lab program managers say that Longyearbyen is an ideal test subject for a carbon capture and sequestration (CSS) experiment. Longyearbyen is a small community, fully powered on coal, and benefits from the existence of the University Centre at Svalbard, a leading institution in developing CSS technology. (Photo: Christi Turner)
The Longyearbyen power plant burns about 30,000 tonnes of coal per year to heat and provide electricity to the city of Longyearbyen. The CO2 Lab plans to capture all of the CO2 emissions resulting from the plant's activities, and store it in an underground "reservoir." (Photo: Christi Turner)
An map of boreholes around Svalbard, courtesy of the Permafrost Observatory Project. These boreholes are used to study the geological composition of the ground, and in the case of the CO2 Lab, its suitability for carbon storage. The cluster of three boreholes to the far right is located at the UNIS CO2 Lab site; the interactive map can be found at http://tinyurl.com/q5pd6xl. (Image: Permafrost Observatory Project, Svalbard)
Mine Number 7, east of Longyearbyen, is the source of all the coal used to power the city. The mine extracts up to 70,000 tonnes annually, with only about 30,000 tonnes used at the Longyearbyen power plant. The rest is exported to Germany, for steel production. (Photo: Christi Turner)
Ole Arve Misund, director of the University Centre in Svalbard, is confident that the UNIS C02 Lab will become a global model for innovative carbon capture and sequestration. (Photo: Christi Turner)