Sustainable fossil fuels: just an oxymoron or simply the future?

Latest international predictions agree upon an increase by 50% in energy consumption and by 100% in electricity demand around the world over the next 20 years. This is due mainly to the economic growth of emerging countries, in particular India and China with their 2,4 billion inhabitants.
In this context, it is necessary to take every opportunity that markets and technological progress are offering, that means developing renewable sources, as well as rationalizing fossil fuels and rising their efficiency.
During the transition to clean sources of energy, it is inevitable that growing demand will be covered by fossil fuels. Renewable sources, efficiency and energy saving will play an important role, but in this phase a higher production in a sustainable way will be possible mainly thanks to CO2 capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
Since coal, oil and gas will be widely used to satisfy new demand, carbon emissions will rise with a considerable impact on our atmosphere and environment; an unbearable scenario that needs to be avoided through three main actions:
1. Increase in renewable and alternative sources
2. Efficiency and energy saving
3. Development of new technologies to reduce carbon emissions.
The third point is crucial to limit the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, since it is clear that we will not be able to fully replace the traditional sources in few years.
This is particularly true for coal, which is the main fossil fuel used for the production of electricity and it is the most carbon-intense.

The role of Carbon Capture & Storage
Making fossil fuels sustainable is not just an abstract idea: thanks to new technologies, already available or achievable through R&D, we can both improve energy efficiency and capture and store CO2 emissions. The necessity of developing CCS technologies is now recognized by all industrialized countries, in particular by EU and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
EU is adopting directives that impose the introduction of these technologies starting from 2020 but it is also promoting 12 demonstrative structures to be ready for 2015. At an international level, many initiatives are encouraging cooperation among different countries, although in Italy a national plan is not in place yet.
However, a few months ago, Enel launched the first pilot plant in Italy for CO2 capture: it is a prototype realized at the thermoelectric power plant Federico II in Cerano, near Brindisi, which will reduce drastically emissions from fossil fuels and allow the production of sustainable energy.
Another demonstrative plant has to be realized in Porto Tolle (Rovigo), in order to adopt CCS technology on an industrial scale and build carbon pipelines to move CO2 to storage sites, situated in the subsoil or under sea bottoms.

7 actions in 7 years
In order to meet the objective set for 2020, the Technology Roadmap Carbon Capture and Storage report (2013 Edition) suggests that 7 actions are necessary:

Financial support to demonstrate and spread CCS technologies
Subsoil exploration to find storage sites
National laws and rules to subsidize new power plants 
Pilot technologies for industrial implementation
Information about CCS to the public
Reduction of electricity costs for CCS plants
Efficient transport infrastructures for CO2

 At the moment, there are 74 Large Scale Integrated Projects (LSIP) around the world, with a total capture capacity of 35,4 tons of CO2, and other 59 are being built. If the trend goes on, it will be possible to achieve the target set by EU and produce energy by still using traditional sources, while respecting the environment.

Chiara Crognoletti
autore immagine: Enel Sharing