A recent study found that, from a technological perspective, the most suitable carbon capture technologies for Estonia’s oil shale industry in the next five years would be absorption and oxy-fuel combustion. The CO2 footprint of oil shale-generated electricity could even be negative in the case of a power plant that runs on a combination of oil shale and wood chips at a 1:1 ratio and utilises carbon capture technology – if the CO2 generated by the burning of wood chips is not accounted for as CO2 emissions.
However, the study also revealed that there are currently no cost-effective and ready-to-use technologies for capturing and utilising CO2 emissions from the oil shale industry. The costs of capture, cleaning, transport, and storage would significantly exceed the CO2 quota charges and environmental charges. While newer technologies are more efficient, they are not yet ready for industrial use. One possible solution is the storage of captured CO2 beneath the North Sea, but public support for this may be difficult to muster and would require further analysis.
‘We need to realise that ambitious climate goals are going to be costly whatever we do, and we need to change our previous mindsets. Technologies for reducing CO2 emissions are already seen as part of the future of energy production, for example, in Germany, Norway, and the UK, but also in the wider world,’ remarked Alar Konist, professor of energy technologies at the Tallinn University of Technology and the head of the study consortium. ‘There are several more affordable and high-potential carbon capture technologies in addition to the two considered in the study. The next step is specifically the further development of these technologies to bring their costs down and make them more widely adoptable.’
The cost of producing electricity from renewable energy sources has been steadily decreasing, but stable base capacity is currently still best ensured by oil-shale generated electricity in Estonia. In order to bring this oil shale-generated base capacity in line with the European Union’s vision of a so-called carbon-neutral economy, carbon capture technologies will need to be integrated with the existing systems.
‘We know that CCS/CCU or carbon capture, storage, and utilisation offers a long-awaited lifeline that would allow the oil shale industry, in particular oil shale-based electricity generation, to remain competitive in the context of tightening climate policies. That is also why this study has been eagerly awaited by policymakers,’ stated Timo Tatar, deputy secretary general for energy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. ‘The study shows that for these technologies to be cost-effective, the unit price of CO2 emissions would need to be almost twice as high as it is today. We are thankful to the expert group that headed the study for their thorough and insightful work.’
Konist, too, admitted that the study yielded a wealth of new knowledge: ‘I consider the key takeaway to be the conclusion that climate neutrality is also attainable in the oil shale industry. Accordingly, we recommend that further research and development of carbon capture technologies be undertaken,’ he added.
While a gradual transition to climate neutrality is also technically feasible by adapting the current technologies employed in the oil shale industry, this may not be economically viable and would reduce the competitiveness of Estonia’s economy. The study highlights the need for comprehensive evidence-based research to develop a long-term strategy for Estonia’s energy sector that would provide clarity for private investors, facilitate the optimal use of public resources, and ensure security of energy supply.
The study was commissioned and funded by the Estonian Research Council within the framework of the RITA 1 programme (Support for Strategic Research and Development). The study was undertaken for the implementation of the objectives of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Finance, and the Government Office of the Republic of Estonia. The study was conducted by the Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu between April 2019 and March 2021.