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UK prime minister promises $1bn CCS injection

Does electoral pledge indicate that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is finally being taken seriously?

A Conservative government under current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will spend an extra £800m ($1bn) on CCS infrastructure, if the party wins a 12 December general election—reflecting a growing appetite to bring the sector into the mainstream of emissions reduction solutions. 

CCS has long been touted as an essential part of global decarbonisation efforts. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates in its latest World Energy Outlook that some 320GW, or 5pc of total installed capacity, of the planet’s coal and gas-fired power stations would require CCS technology by 2040 if the world is to follow a sustainable development path. 

But the concept has struggled to gain traction compared to more explicitly low-carbon investments, such as renewable energy. Only 19 large-scale CCS facilities are operational around the world, with four more under construction, according to thinktank the Global CCS institute. 

The UK’s efforts to get CCS off the ground have foundered, despite a government target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the technical suitability of depleted gasfields, saline aquifers and caverns under the North Sea. A previous Conservative administration cancelled a £1bn competition to build a commercial-scale CCS demonstration plant in 2015— a competition also promised in the run-up to an election. So, the industry may wait to see evidence of the promised investment before getting too excited. 

The UK’s Committee for Climate Change described CCS development as “too slow” in a June report

A report published in October by the main UK opposition Labour party—which has yet to formally release its CCS policy— recommended that project trials should be carried out in the early 2020s and that the sector should be expanded to become “a significant if still emerging component of the energy mix by the late 2020s”. 

Cluster approach 

The UK’s Committee for Climate Change, which advises the government, described CCS development as “too slow” in a June report. But there is optimism that momentum might build. Johnson’s promise of extra funding is “extremely welcome”, says Luke Warren, chief executive of the UK’s carbon capture and storage association lobby group, adding that “investing in CCS infrastructure can put the UK at the forefront of the low-carbon industrial revolution and create the clean industries of the future”. 

The country’s current approach is to test the use of capture technology in industrial plants and power facilities grouped together to achieve economies of scale in so-called CCS ‘clusters’. Six would-be cluster projects around the UK, mainly located in areas with relatively easy access to potential North Sea storage sites, are vying for financing. 

UK efforts to get CCS off the ground have foundered, despite a target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050

Thus far, funding has been targeted at installing carbon capture equipment and developing decarbonisation pilots, including £170mn to develop the cluster concept. But the promised £800mn could extend help to thus far relatively less well-funded pipeline and storage elements. “This is the right order of magnitude of money. And it is a very good time to support the start-up of these developments and get all six industry clusters around the UK aligned and motoring along,” says Stuart Haszledine, CCS professor at the University of Edinburgh. 

Natural gas-to-hydrogen 

As well as capturing CO2 emissions from gas-fired plants, the clusters are also looking at producing hydrogen using natural gas plus CCS—aiming to assist the development of a UK hydrogen economy embracing power, heating and energy storage. 

Renewable power can be used to produce hydrogen with minimal overall emissions through water electrolysis – so-called ‘green’ hydrogen. The challenge is building enough renewable capacity to enable large-scale hydrogen production using this power-hungry process, particularly as electrification puts another additional demand strain on the power sector. 

If emissions from an established reforming process to split natural gas into hydrogen and CO2 can be captured and stored—so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen—the process could be scaled up much faster. Global annual deliveries of electrolysis equipment are also currently a fraction of those for gas reforming equipment, per unit of energy output, warns Steinar Eikaas, head of low carbon solutions at Norway’s Equinor, flagging another logistical advantage that blue hydrogen + CCS could offer. 

Equinor is involved in a project to assess whether Swedish utility Vattenfall’s Magnum gas-fired power plant in the Netherlands can be converted to hydrogen produced on the site, supported by CCS in the Norwegian North Sea. The company is also participating in the H21 North of England project to convert 3.7mn homes and businesses from gas to hydrogen, which could get the go-ahead in 2023.  

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