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Renewables funding outperforms carbon capture in climate mitigation

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Producing energy using renewable resources offers a better hope for tackling climate change than applying carbon capture technologies to fossil fuel plants, according to new research.

Carbon capture technologies can be used to sequester emissions from coal and gas-fired power stations, and store them underground. Various forms of the technology have been proposed in recent months including a CO2 absorbing powder and adapting scuba diving technology for use in fossil fuel plants.

However, new research has shown that resources would be better invested in creating more solar panels and wind turbines, and focusing on developing energy storage options to support them.

An international team of researchers from Lancaster University, Khalifa University, Clemson University, UiT The Arctic University, and the University of Florence have calculated the energy output after taking into account the energy needed to create and operate the different systems.

Renewable energy systems such as wind farms and solar panels, combined with storage systems such as batteries or pumped hydro-power were found to be less energy intensive overall when compared to even the best examples of carbon capture.

The researchers said this was partly due to net energy losses from implementing carbon capture - which includes penalties caused by the energy needed to build, and then operate, the carbon capture and storage processes. In addition, the equipment, such as pipes and compressors, needed to capture and store carbon also needs energy to produce - which is known as embodied energy. All this results in a reduced net energy output from power stations with carbon capture.

The energy return on wind turbines and solar panels depends on the amount used to build the panels and turbines themselves, and also on how sunny or windy the area in which they are installed. Even moderately efficient renewable locations were found to provide a better energy return than the majority of carbon capture technologies.

“It is more valuable, energetically, to invest the available energy resources directly into building new renewable energy and storage capacity rather than building new fossil-fuel power stations with carbon capture,” said Dr Denes Csala of Lancaster University, co-author of the study. “The better net energy return of investing in renewable energy makes it more likely to meet emission targets without risking a reduction in energy availability, due to dwindling fossil fuel supplies and a climate-constrained emissions budget.”

“Given its net energy disadvantages, carbon capture and storage should be considered a niche and supplementary contributor to the energy system, rather than be seen as a critical technology option as current climate agreements view it.”

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