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Can UK Acorn carbon capture project grow into solution to industry emissions?

With CCS seen as critical to reaching net zero by 2050, Angeli Mehta looks at prospects for scaling up the technology around the world

Every new report on climate change makes depressing reading, but scientists have given us route maps to get to net zero by 2050. Nearly all of these rely on a technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS). It’s being used today, and it works, but it urgently needs to be scaled up if we’re to prevent catastrophic climate change within the next 12 years.

“We need to stop burning fossil fuels or start sequestering carbon dioxide – or both. That’s it: conversation over,” says Chris Stark, chief executive of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change. “We’ve said to the government that they mustn’t plan for any 2050 scenario without CCS.”

Stark was speaking in January at the launch of the findings of an EU-backed study identifying a potential UK hub for transporting and storing emissions. Project Acorn has examined the UK’s huge carbon dioxide storage potential, and homed in on the St Fergus gas-processing plant on the north-east coast of Scotland, where one-third of the UK’s gas supply comes ashore.

If you’re looking for a decarbonised solution, having a transport and storage infrastructure operating makes the investment decision much easier

Several nearby pipelines, which would otherwise be decommissioned as gas fields run out, could be repurposed to take carbon dioxide in the opposite direction, storing it in deep geological formations under the North Sea.

Reuse of the onshore and offshore pipelines that serve St Fergus could save £730m compared with building new ones, as well as avoiding decommissioning costs and reducing environmental impacts.

Acorn’s first phase allows for a capture plant and development of transport and storage to handle at least 2m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, at a cost of £276m. With the right support it could be operational by 2023. It could also help get other carbon capture projects off the ground, as 16m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year could be imported at the neighbouring port of Peterhead from other parts of the UK and Europe.

“If you’re a developer of an industrial plant and you’re looking for a decarbonised solution for that plant, having a transport and storage infrastructure that is there and operating makes the investment decision for that plant much easier,” suggests Alan James, managing director of Acorn project manager, Pale Blue Dot Energy.

Offshore, the UK has enormous potential for CO2 storage, some 78 gigatonnes. That’s 200 times the UK’s 2016 emissions, according to Hazel Robertson, a geophysicist and senior energy consultant at Pale Blue Dot Energy. How do we know the sub-sea rock formations will provide secure storage? “We have a wealth of data from oil and gas exploration and production, which all helps to build up a picture of the rocks,” says Robertson. Modelling enables scientists to work out how the gas will move through the rock. Ultimately, she says, “the proof is that oil and gas was held there for tens of millions of years”.

CCS projects must capture 850m tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 to meet its Paris commitments, so far we are just 4% there

The industrial sector accounts for about a quarter of global emissions.

Huge swathes of industry – steel, cement, and chemicals, for example – rely on carbon either as the source of energy for their processes or as an essential ingredient. The International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that CCS projects must capture 850m tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 to keep the world on track to meet its Paris commitments. So far, the 18 large-scale carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) projects now operating across the world get us just 4% of the way there.

Many of these are capturing carbon dioxide from the emissions of power plants and refineries and injecting it into partially depleted oilfields to force out more oil, leaving most of the CO2 permanently stored deep underground, a practice known as enhanced oil recovery. The largest example is Petra Nova in Texas, a joint venture between NRG and JX Nippon with funding from the US Department of Energy. According to the company CCS and has cut CO2 emissions at the coal power station by 90%.

Environmentalists slate EOR for promoting the extraction of fossil fuels, but it has helped to make CCS commercially viable.

In 2017, Archer Daniel Midland’s ethanol plant in Illinois in the US began operating a 1.1m tonne per year capture plant, injecting the CO2 into sandstone rock over 2km below ground. Researchers estimate that the sandstone formation could store over 250m tonnes of CO2 each year.

A summit in Edinburgh, UK, last November hosted by the IEA and UK government brought together representatives from oil, gas and finance corporations alongside governments from across the globe. All were united in their desire to accelerate CCS projects.

CCS is no longer an issue of overcoming technology barriers but securing investment

The IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol, told the summit that it was “no longer an issue of overcoming technology barriers but securing investment”, and that would require global co-operation and new business models.

Claire Perry, minister for energy and clean growth, sees CCUS as a “fundamental part of post-Brexit Britain”. She launched a UK action plan and put money behind it: £20m for CCS, from a £45m innovation fund, as well as a share of a £315m pot for decarbonising industry. Just a week later, at the climate talks in Poland, she announced another £170m – to be matched by industry – to develop the first “net zero carbon” cluster of heavy industry by 2040.

Her department has committed to developing the policy and regulatory framework this year to get projects to scale. According to Perry, CCUS is no longer viewed as a bolt-on to power stations. She said CCUS has to be integrated into industrial clusters “because we can’t work out how to decarbonise industrial activities without it”.

There are models the UK can draw on: Norway’s carbon tax provided the impetus for Statoil [since renamed Equinor] to begin sequestering carbon dioxide 20 years ago. And in early 2018, the US announced a progressive increase in its 45Q tax credit for storing carbon dioxide.

By 2026, CO2 locked away in geological storage will receive $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide, compared with $22 today, while utilisation of CO2 in products, including enhanced oil recovery, would receive $35 per tonne.

At the time, the IEA suggested the increase could lead to 10-30 million more tonnes of CO2 capture capacity over the next six years.

We need to find a way of spreading the decarbonisation out and aggregating it across the whole of the economy

The director of the Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage (SCCS) research group, Stuart Haszeldine, who sat on the CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce, argues that “we need to find a way of spreading the decarbonisation out and aggregating it across the whole of the economy”.

He advocates a certification scheme that would oblige anyone extracting or importing fossil carbon to store increasing amounts of carbon dioxide at a ramp-up rate that can be calculated to reach net zero, or even negative emissions by a specific date. That demand for storage would, he argues, lead to the emergence of a system operator to create a transport and storage network.

The CCUS taskforce has also proposed that a system of financial incentives that has been used to guarantee a return for developing critical electricity and water infrastructure be applied to carbon dioxide storage and transportation.

Demand for cement and steel is expected to almost double by 2050. Both production processes are highly energy-intensive. In the case of cement, almost two thirds of emissions come from heating the main ingredient, limestone, to produce the chemical glue that is cement. As yet there is no alternative that can replace the limestone at scale.

Twenty cement plants around the North Sea basin – from Estonia to Scotland – emit 20m tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Given the tremendous storage potential in the North Sea, there is a viable home for all those emissions if a flexible hub infrastructure could be created.

Germany’s HeidelbergCement Group is one of the world’s largest cement makers. Its Norcem plant in southern Norway is committed to zero lifecycle carbon emissions of its concrete products by 2030. Per Brevik, director of alternative fuels and sustainability, told a recent webinar that his industry was responsible for 5%-7% of global emissions. “We have to do something … and although we are substituting a lot of the coal, we must do much more than that.”

We have to industrialise this if we’re going to succeed. We can’t build tailor-made solutions all the time Norcem has been investigating different carbon-capture technologies since 2013, and is now competing to be part of a Norwegian government-backed programme to establish the full chain of CCS for industrial emissions, with storage under the North Sea. The other project in contention is a waste-to-energy plant outside Oslo.

If Norcem is successful, the plant could be operational by late 2023. The technology it has chosen would capture 400,000 tonnes of CO2 a year initially. The capture process is itself energy-intensive, so Norcem’s plan is to use the excess heat from cement production, so saving energy and cutting costs.

Other process industries, are watching Norcem’s progress with interest, adds Brevik.

To get wide take-up of CCS, Brevik argues that modular solutions for different-sized plants are needed. “We have to industrialise this if we’re going to succeed. We can’t build tailor-made solutions all the time. That’s too expensive.”

Meanwhile, China’s first cement CCS demonstration plant began operations last October, and is expected to capture 50,000 tonnes a year.

The first commercial CCS project in the steel industry began operating in 2016. The Al Reyadah plant at Emirates Steel near Abu Dhabi, captures 800,000 tonnes of CO2 each year for injection into nearby oil and gas fields. The company says it’s commercially self-sustaining, with no government subsidies.

Enhanced oil recovery opportunities do exist in the North Sea that could use quite a lot, beneficially

In Europe, Tata Steel has plans for CCS on its journey to carbon neutral steel-making by 2050. It ultimately expects to be able to replace coal with hydrogen from renewable energy. Before then, CCS would help it cut emissions by up to 80% when combined with a new energy-saving steel-making process it is pioneering through an EU-backed project at its Ijmuiden steelworks in the Netherlands.

The process has the added benefit of producing flue gas with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide that will improve capture efficiency, says Peter Quinn, head of environmental policy and strategy at Tata Steel Europe. So far there’s “nothing tangible in terms of [CCS] infrastructure, but over the last 12 months there’s been a real ramp-up of activity … and technology scoping with different providers”. While its Port Talbot plan in South Wales doesn’t have easy access to offshore storage, Tata is working with other substantial emitters to explore how an industrial cluster could decarbonise using shared infrastructure.

Other clusters are more advanced in planning. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a £1bn-plus investment fund created by the oil and gas industry, has announced that it will back a project on Teesside, home to essential chemicals and process industries. Six OGCI members – BP, Equinor, ENI, Occidental, Shell and Total – are putting up the cash to help progress the development of the Clean Gas Project, whose aim is to develop a natural gas-fired power plant, with 2m tonnes of carbon dioxide captured for use and storage annually.