Tag: decarbonisation

What is decarbonisation?

Decarbonisation

What is decarbonisation?

Decarbonisation is the term used for the process of removing or reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) output of a country’s economy. This is usually done by decreasing the amount of CO2 emitted across the active industries within that economy. 

Why is decarbonisation important?

Currently, a wide range of sectors – industrial, residential and transport – run largely on fossil fuels, which means that their energy comes from the combustion of fuels like coal, oil or gas.

The CO2 emitted from using these fuels acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping in heat and contributing to global warming. By using alternative sources of energy, industries can reduce the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere and can help to slow the effects of climate change.

Key decarbonisation facts

Why target carbon dioxide?

 There are numerous greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, however CO2 is the most prevalent. As of 2018, carbon levels are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years.

The Paris Agreement was created to hold nations accountable in their efforts to decrease carbon emissions, with the central goal of ensuring that temperatures don’t rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level.

With 195 current signatories, economies have begun to factor in the need for less investment in carbon, with the UK leading the G20 nations in decarbonising its economy in the 21st century.

How is decarbonisation carried out?

There are numerous energy technologies that aim to reduce emissions from industries, as well as those that work towards reducing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

Decarbonisation has had the most progress in electricity generation because of the growth of renewable sources of power, such as wind turbines, solar panels and coal-to-biomass upgrades, meaning that homes and businesses don’t have to rely on fossil fuels. Other innovations, such as using batteries and allowing homes to generate and share their own power, can also lead to higher rates of decarbonisation. As the electricity itself is made cleaner, it therefore assists electricity users themselves to become cleaner in the process.

Other approaches, such as reforestation or carbon capture and storage, help to pull existing carbon from the air, to neutralise carbon output, or in some cases, help to make electricity generation – and even entire nations – carbon negative.

Alternative power options means that homes and businesses don’t have to rely on traditional carbon fuels.

What is the future of decarbonisation?

For decarbonisation to be more widely adopted as a method for combating climate change, there needs to be structural economical change, according to Deloitte Access Economics. Creating more room for decarbonisation through investing in alternative energies means that “there are a multitude of job-rich, shovel-ready, stimulus opportunities that also unlock long-term value”.

 Decarbonisation fast facts

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Button: What is biomass?

 

Plant more forests and better manage them

Working forests in the US South

There is an ongoing debate about forests’ contribution to fighting the climate crisis.

Forests can act as substantial and effective tools for carbon sequestration during a high growth phase. They can also function as significant and extensive carbon storage areas during maturity and throughout multiple stages of the age class cycle, if managed effectively at a landscape level. Or, they can be emitters of carbon if over-harvested, subject to fire, storm, pest or disease damage.

Different age class forest stands in Louisiana

In a natural state, forests will go through each of these life phases: rapid early growth; maturity and senescence; damage, decay and destruction through natural causes. Then they begin the cycle again, absorbing and then emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) in a continual succession.

Recently, loud voices have argued against forest management per se; against harvesting for wood products in particular, suggesting that this reduces both forest carbon stocks and sequestration capacity.

Pine cut in into wood for different wood products markets in Louisiana. Big, thick, straight higher value sections go to sawmills and smaller and misshapen low-grade wood not suitable for timber production is sold to pulp, paper or wood pellet mills.

Many foresters consider that this is just not correct. In fact, the opposite is true. Research and evidence clearly support the foresters’ view. Active forest management, when carried out appropriately, actually increases the amount of carbon sequestered, ensures that carbon is stored in solid wood products, and provides substantial savings of fossil fuels by displacing other high carbon materials (e.g. concrete, steel, brick, plastic and coal).

Oliver et al.(2014)[1] compared the impact of forest harvesting and the use of wood products to substitute other high-carbon materials, concluding that: ‘More CO2 can be sequestered synergistically in the products or wood energy and landscape together than in the unharvested landscape. Harvesting sustainably at an optimum stand age will sequester more carbon in the combined products, wood energy, and forest than harvesting sustainably at other ages.’

This research demonstrated that an increase in the use of structural timber to displace concrete and steel could lead to substantial emissions savings compared to unharvested forest. The use of wood for energy is an essential component of this displacement process, although it is important to use appropriate feedstocks. Burning wood that could be used for structural timber will not lead to a positive climate impact.

The message here is to manage working forests for optimum sawlog production for long-life solid wood products and utilise the by-products for energy where this is the most viable market, this provides the best all-round climate benefit.

What happens when you close the gate

Closing the forest gate and stopping all harvesting and management is one option being championed by some climate change campaigners. There is certainly a vital role for the preservation and protection of forests globally: primary and virgin forests, intact landscapes, high biodiversity and high conservation value areas all need to be protected.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no forest management. It should mean careful and appropriate management to maintain and ensure the future of the resource. In these cases, management is with an objective to reduce the risk of fire, pests and disease, rather than for timber production.

Globally, we need better governance, understanding and implementation of best practice to achieve this. Forest certification and timber tracing systems are a good start. This can equally apply to the many hundreds of millions of hectares of ‘working forest’ that do not fall into the protection categories; forests that have been managed for many hundreds of years for timber production and other purposes. Harvesting in these forests can be more active, but governance, controls and the development of best practice are required. Better management not less management.

During the 1970s there was a significant change of policy in the US, aimed at removing massive areas of publicly owned forest from active management – effectively closing the gate. The drivers behind this policy were well meaning; it was intended to protect and preserve the habitat of endangered species, but the unintended consequences have also had a substantial impact. In the 1970s little thought was given to the carbon sequestration and storage potential of forests and climate change was not at the top of the agenda.

The west coast of the US was most substantially affected by these changes, more than in the US South, but the data below looks at the example of Mississippi which is primarily ‘working forest’ and 88% in private ownership.

Pine trees in Mississippi working forest

This is the location of Drax’s Amite pellet mill. The charts below show an interesting comparison of forest ownership in Mississippi where limited or no harvesting takes place and where active management for timber production occurs. In the short term the total volume of timber stored per hectare is higher where no harvesting occurs. This makes sense since the forest will keep growing until it reaches its climax point and succumbs to fire, pest or disease.

Average standing volume per unit area in the private sector, where active management occurs, is the lowest as timber is periodically removed for use in solid wood products. Remember that the Oliver et al. analysis (which does not include re-growth), showed that despite a short-term reduction in forest carbon, the total displacement of high-carbon materials with wood for structural timber and energy leads to a far higher emissions saving. It is better to have a lower stock of carbon in a working forest and to be continually sequestering new carbon for storage in solid wood products.

Average standing volume per acre by ownership class, Mississippi[2]

Comparing the average annual growth rates across all forest types in Mississippi, annual growth in the private sector is almost double that in the unharvested public forest. This differential is increased even further if only commercial species like pine are considered and a comparison is made between planted, well managed forests and those that are left to naturally regenerate.

Average growth rates per acre by ownership class, Mississippi[3]

The managed forest area is continually growing and storing more carbon at a materially higher rate than less actively managed forest. As harvesting removes some forest carbon, these products displace high carbon materials in construction and energy and new young forests are replacing the old ones.

We know that forests are not being ‘lost’ and that the overall storage of carbon is increasing. For example, the Drax catchment area analysis for the Amite biomass wood pellet plant showed an increase in forest area of 5,200 ha and an increase in volume of 11 million m3 – just in the area around the pellet mill. But what happens to protected forest area, the forest reserve with limited or no harvesting?

Over the last 20 years the average annual loss of forest to wildfire in the US has been 2.78 million ha per year (the same as the UK’s total area of productive forest). According to the USFS FIA database the average standing volume of forests in the US is 145 m3 per ha (although in the National Park land this is 365 m3 per ha). Therefore, wildfires are responsible for the average annual combustion of 403 million m3 of wood p.a. (equal to the total annual wood harvest of the US) or 2.5 billion m3 if entirely in National Parks.

One cubic metre equates to a similar quantity of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year, therefore wildfires are responsible for between 407 million and 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in the US each year[4].

Wildfires in the US

Starrs et al. (2018)[5] demonstrated that the risk of wildfire was significantly higher in federally owned reserved forest (where harvesting and management were restricted), compared to privately owned forests with active management.

In California, the risk of wildfire in federal forest (2000-15) was almost double the risk in private forests where both had State firefighting resources. The risk of fires in federal lands had increased by 93% since 1950-66, compared to only 33% in non-federal forests, due to the change in forest management practice in the 1970s.

Forest fire in California

Closing the gate means that the carbon stock is maintained and grows in the short term, but there is no opportunity for carbon to be stored in solid wood products, no high-carbon materials are displaced (concrete, steel and fossil fuels) and the rate of sequestration declines as the forest ages. Eventually the forest will reach its natural climax and die, releasing all of that carbon back into the atmosphere. The managed forest, by contrast, will have a lower standing volume at a certain point in time, but will be in a continual cycle of sequestration, storage and regrowth – with a much lower risk of fire and disease. If managed correctly, the rate of growth and standing volume will also increase over time.

How should we manage the forest

Forests are extremely variable, there are a vast variety of tree species, soil, geological features, water regimes, temperature, climate and many other factors that combine to make unique ecosystems and forest landscapes. Some of these are rare and valuable for the exceptional assemblages they contain, some are commonplace and widespread. Some are natural, some man-made or influenced by human activity.

Forests have many important roles to play and careful management is required. In some cases that management may be protection, preservation and monitoring. In other cases, it may be active harvesting and planting to optimise growth and carbon storage.

Cypress forests in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana are an example of a forest landscape where the suitable management practice is protection, preservation and monitoring

For each forest type and area, we need to recognise the highest or best purpose(s) for that land in the objectives set and carefully plan the management to optimise and sustain that value. The primary value could be in species and habitat diversity or rarity; provision of recreation and aesthetic value; production of timber, forest products and revenue generation; carbon sequestration and storage; water management and other ecosystem benefits.

Most likely it will be a combination of several of these benefits. Therefore, best management practice usually involves optimising each piece of forest land to provide the most effective combination of values. Forests can deliver many benefits if we are sensible about how we manage them.

In a recent study Favero et al. (2020)[6] concluded that: Increased bioenergy demand increases forest carbon stocks thanks to afforestation activities and more intensive management relative to a no-bioenergy case. Some natural forests, however, are converted to more intensive management, with potential biodiversity losses…the expanded use of wood for bioenergy will result in net carbon benefits, but an efficient policy also needs to regulate forest carbon sequestration.

[1] CHADWICK DEARING OLIVER, NEDAL T. NASSAR, BRUCE R. LIPPKE, and JAMES B. McCARTER, 2014. Carbon, Fossil Fuel, and Biodiversity Mitigation with Wood and Forests.
[2] US Forest Service, FIA Database, 2020.
[3] US Forest Service, FIA Database, 2020.
[4] Assumes an average basic density of 570kg/m3 and 50:25:25 ratio of cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose.
[5] Carlin Frances Starrs, Van Butsic, Connor Stephens and William Stewart, 2018. The impact of land ownership, firefighting, and reserve status on fire probability in California.
[6] Alice Favero, Adam Daigneault, Brent Sohngen, 2020. Forests: Carbon sequestration, biomass energy, or both?

£125 million ESG facility extended to 2025

Engineers in PPE high above Drax Power Station looking towards biomass wood pellet storage dome

RNS Number: 7379P
Drax Group plc
(“Drax” or the “Company”; Symbol: DRX)

Drax is pleased to announce that it has completed a three-year extension to the £125 million Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) facility agreement entered into in July 2019. The contractual final maturity of the facility is 2025, further extending the profile of Drax’s existing facilities, which include maturities to 2029.

The ESG facility includes a mechanism that adjusts the rate of interest paid based on Drax’s carbon emissions against an annual benchmark, reflecting Drax’s continued commitment to reducing its carbon emissions as a part of its overall purpose of enabling a zero-carbon, lower cost energy future and an ambition to become carbon negative by 2030.

The average all-in interest rate during the first year of the extended facility is less than 2%. The Group’s overall cost of debt is less than 4% per annum.

Enquiries:

Drax Investor Relations: Mark Strafford

+44 (0) 7730 763 949

Media:

Drax External Communications: Ali Lewis

+44 (0) 7712 670 888

Website: www.drax.com

END

5 exciting energy innovations that you should know about in 2020

As we head into the 2020s, it’s an exciting time for energy. A deeper level of climate consciousness has led to crucial changes in populations’ attitudes and thinking around how we power our lives – adapting to a new set of energy standards has become essential.

It’s also driving innovation in energy technology, leading to the rise of a number of emerging technologies designed to support the global energy transition in new ways. From domestic solar and wind generation, to leaps forward in recycling and aeroplane fuel, here are five new energy ideas in the 2020s pipeline.

Miniature turbines for your garden

Think of a wind farm and you might think of giant structures located in remote, windswept areas, but that’s quickly changing.

IceWind is developing residential wind turbines that use the same generator-principal as large-scale wind farms, just on a much smaller scale. A set of three outer and three inner vertical blades rotate when the wind passes through them, providing spinning mechanical energy that passes through the generator and is converted to electricity.

Constructed from durable stainless steel, carbon fibre and aluminium, the CW1000 model can handle wind speeds of up to 134 miles per hour. To ensure they’re fit for domestic use, the units are adapted to have a maximum height of just over 3 metres and make less than 40 decibels of noise – roughly equivalent to quiet conversation.

The Icelandic company says it aims to decentralise and democratise energy generation by making wind power accessible to people anywhere in the world.

Expanding solar to cover more surfaces

As solar technology becomes more widespread and easier to implement, more communities are turning to a prosumer approach and generating their own power.

Roof panels to date have been the most common way to domestically capture and convert rays, but Solecco is taking it a step further, offering solar roof tiles. These work in the same way as roof panels, using photovoltaic cells made of silicon to convert sunlight into electricity. But by covering more surface area, entire roofs can be used to generate solar energy, rather than single panels.

Environmental Street Furniture takes it a step further by bringing small scale solar generation into many aspects of the urban environment such as smart benches, rubbish bins, and solar lighting in green spaces. This opens up opportunities for powering cities, including incorporating charging stations and network connectivity, which in turn enables social power sharing.

Re-purposing plastic 

Global recycling rates currently sit at approximately 18%, indicating there are still further steps to take in ensuring single-use products are eliminated.

Plastic is a major target in the war on disposal, and for good reason. By 2015, the world had produced over seven billion tonnes of plastic. Greenology is tackling this by harnessing a process called pyrolysis to turn plastic into power. By heating waste at a very high temperature without oxygen, the plastic is breaks down without combusting.

This process produces bio-oils, which can be used to create biofuels. The benefits of this innovative approach to waste are twofold: not only can plastic be repurposed, which minimises the lasting impact single-use plastic has on the planet, but the creation of biofuel offers a power source for everything from transport to generating electricity.

Storing heat for the home

Decarbonising heating is one of the global challenges yet to have a clear answer. Pumped Heat Ltd (PHL) is developing a potential solution with its heat battery technology. The company has found a solution that enables its devices to charge up and store electricity during ‘off-peak’ hours (when electricity is at its cheapest) and then use this energy to generate heating and hot water for homes as it is required. As the grid continues to decarbonise, and as renewable power becomes cheaper and more accessible, the electricity used to charge these units will approach zero carbon content.

The heat battery technology utilises vacuum insulation, losing 10 times less heat than a conventional night storage heater. In contrast, air sourced heat pumps (a more commonly used type of heat pump), operate in real time when a home needs heating. They take water at its delivery temperature (which can be very cold, during the winter months) and heat it using electricity available at that time. Pumped Heat’s storage system instead ensures there is always heat available, maintaining a consistent temperature for hot water or central heating, rather than just when there is an excess of electricity.

The company claims the benefit of using a heat battery system is that it is cheaper than an oil or LPG boiler, in a world where renewable electricity production, both domestic and on a national level, is only set to increase.

Waste-powered planes

As some of the most fossil fuel-reliant industries in the world, travel and transport are actively seeking alternative and more sustainable ways to keep them powered in long run.

Velocys aims to do this using waste. The company is developing sustainable fuels for aviation and heavy goods transport, using the Fischer-Tropsch method of gasifying waste. This involves turning waste materials – such as domestic refuse and woody waste – into clean jet fuel using a catalytic chemical reaction, where synthesis gases (carbon monoxide and hydrogen) are converted into liquid hydrocarbons that can then be used for fuel.

Not only does this make use of waste products that could have ended up in landfill, but it produces much cleaner fuels, that emit less particle matter and harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.

As we enter a new decade of invention, the world is focusing on more sustainable alternatives to power our lives, and these innovative solutions to current environmental issues will continue to inspire creativity.

Is renewable-rich the new oil-rich?

Aerial view of hundreds solar energy modules or panels rows along the dry lands at Atacama Desert, Chile. Huge Photovoltaic PV Plant in the middle of the desert from an aerial drone point of view

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘oil-rich’ nations, but as low carbon energy sources become ever more important to meeting global demand, renewable energy could become a global export. With a future favouring zero-carbon and even negative emissions innovation, here are some countries that are not only harnessing their natural resources to make more renewable energy, but are making progress in storing and exporting it.

Could these new opportunities lead us to one day deem them ‘renewable-rich’?

Could Europe import its solar power supply?

With the largest concentrated solar farm in the world, Morocco is already streets ahead in its ability to capture and convert sunlight into power. The 3,000 hectare solar complex, known as Noor-Ouarzazate, has a capacity of 580 megawatts (MW), which provides enough power for a city twice the size of Marrakesh.

Noor-Ouarzazate Power Plant, Morocco. Image source: ACWA Power

Its uses curved mirrors to direct sunlight into a singular beam that creates enough heat to melt salt in a central tower. This stores the heat and – when needed – is used to create steam which spins a turbine and generates electricity. This has helped keep Morocco on course to achieve its goal of deriving 42% of its power from renewable sources by the end of 2020, which potentially means a surplus in the coming years.

Morocco already has 1.4 gigawatts (GW) of interconnection with Spain, and another 700 MW is scheduled to come online before 2026. The country’s close proximity to Europe could make its solar capacity a source of power across the continent.

Africa’s geothermal potential

Olkaria II geothermal power plant in Kenya

Kenya was the first African nation to embrace geothermal energy and has now been using it for decades. In 1985, Kenya’s geothermal generation produced 45 MW of power – 30 years later, the country now turns over 630 MW.

Kenya’s ample generation of geothermal electricity is due to an abundance of steam energy in the underground volcanic wells of Olkaria, in the Great Rift Valley. In 2015, the region was responsible for providing 47% of the country’s power.

Currently the Olkaria region is thought to have a potential capacity of 2 GW of power, which could help to provide a source of clean energy for Kenya’s neighbours. However, there is potential for the rest of East Africa to generate its own geothermal power.

In this region of the continent there is an estimated 20 GW of power generation capacity possible  from stored geothermal energy, while the demand for the creation of usable grids that can connect multiple countries is high. Kenya is currently expanding its own grid, installing a planned 3,600 miles of new electrical wiring across the country.

Winds of change

China’s position in the renewable energy market is already up top, with continuous investment in solar and hydro power giving it a renewable capacity of more than 700 GW

The country is also home to the world’s largest onshore wind farm, in the form of the Gansu Wind Farm Project, which is made up of over 7,000 turbines. It is set to have a capacity of 20 GW by the end of 2020, bringing the nationwide installed wind capacity to 250 GW.

With China exporting more than 20,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity in 2018, large scale renewable projects can have a wide-reaching effect beyond its borders. South-Asia is the primary market, but excesses of power in Western China have stoked ideas of exporting power as far away as Germany.

Can the US store the world’s carbon?

In the quest for zero-carbon energy it won’t just be nations that can export excess energy that could stand to profit – those that can import emissions could also benefit.

While many countries are developing the capabilities to capture carbon dioxide (CO2), storing it safely and permanently is another question. Having underground facilities that can store CO2 creates an opportunity to import and sequester carbon as a service for other nations. Norway is already doing it, but the US has the greatest potential thanks to its abundance of large underground storage capabilities.

The Global CCS Institute highlights the US as the country most prepared to deploy carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale, thanks to its vast landscape, history of injecting CO2 in enhanced oil recovery, and favourable government policies.

The Petra Nova plant in Texas is also known as the world’s largest carbon capture facility. The coal-power station captured more than 1 million tonnes of CO2 within the first 10 months of operating as a 654 MW unit.

Carbon capture facility at the Petra Nova coal-fired power plant, Texas, USA

Chile’s hydrogen innovation

Hydrogen is becoming increasingly relevant as an energy source thanks to its ability to generate electricity and power transport while releasing far fewer emissions than other fossil fuels.

Chile was an early proponent of energy sharing with its hydrogen programme. The country uses solar electricity generated in the Atacama Desert (which sees 3,000 hours of sunlight a year), to power hydrogen production in a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Chile plans to export the gas to Japan and South Korea, but with global demand for hydrogen set to grow, higher-volume, further-reaching exporting of the country’s hydrogen could soon be on the way.

Going forward, these green innovations – from carbon storage to geothermal potential – could increasingly be shared between countries and continents in an attempt to lower the overall carbon footprint of the world’s energy. This could create a global power shift toward nations which, rather than having high capacity for fossil fuel extraction, can instead use a different set of natural resources to generate, store and export cleaner energy.

Under lockdown, every day is a Sunday

empty UK motorway in England at sunset with no traffic

On March 23rd the UK took an unprecedented move to tackle the coronavirus. Most business that had not already closed moved online, with millions of people now working from home. This had a huge impact on electricity demand: consumption on weekdays fell by 13% to its lowest levels since 1982 – a time when there were 10 million fewer people in the country, and GDP was a third lower than today.

Other regions have seen a similar collapse in electricity demand. Spain, Italy and France have all seen electricity demand fall by 10-15% according to analysis by Ember. Across the Atlantic, New York City has seen similar reductions.

Demand has fallen for a simple reason: with schools and workplaces now closed or running with a greatly reduced staff – machinery, computers, lights and heaters are not drawing power. Electric rail, tram and tube systems are also running a reduced service. On the contrary, with more people at home, household electricity consumption has increased. Octopus Energy estimate that during social distancing (before the stricter lockdown came into effect) homes were consuming up to a third more electricity, adding £20 per month to the typical bill.

The impact of lockdown on Britain’s electricity demand is much like living through a month of Sundays. The average profile for a March weekend day in previous years looks very similar to the daily profile for weekdays since lockdown begun – both in the amount of electricity consumed and the structure. Post-lockdown weekends have even lower demand, tracking 11% below weekday demand.

People no longer have to get up at the crack of dawn for work. On a typical weekday morning, demand would rise by 10 GW over two hours from 5:30 to 7:30 AM. Now it takes more than twice as long – until midday – for this rise to occur. At the other end of the day, there would normally be a small peak in demand around 8 PM from people gathering in pubs and restaurants up and down the country. Both on weekdays and weekends, demand begins falling earlier in the evening as the sofa has become the only available social venue.

urban street cafe empty without visitors

With lower demand comes lower power prices. Wholesale electricity prices are typically 7% lower on Sundays than on weekdays for this reason. March saw the lowest monthly-average power price in 12 years, down one-third on this month last year. Prices were already heading downwards because of the falling price of gas, but the lockdown has amplified this, and negative prices have become commonplace during the middle of the day. There was not a visible impact on carbon emissions during the first quarter of the year, as only the last week of March was affected. However, as lockdown continued into April and May, emissions from power production in Britain have fallen by 35% on the same period last year. The effect is slightly stronger across Europe, with carbon emissions falling almost 40% as dirtier coal and lignite power stations are being turned down.

Will some of these effects persist after lockdown restrictions are eased? It is too early to tell, as it depends on what long-lasting economic and behavioural changes occur. Electricity demand is linked with the country’s GDP, which is set to face the largest downturn in three centuries. Whether the economy bounces back, or is afflicted with a lasting depression will be key to future electricity demand. It will also depend on behavioural shifts. People are of course craving their lost freedoms, many may appreciate not going back to a lengthy daily commute – and the rise of video conferencing and collaboration apps has shown that remote working may finally have come of age. With even a small share of the population continuing to work from home on some days, there could be a lasting impact on electricity demand for years to come.


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How do you store CO2 and what happens to it when you do?

Sunrise over Saltwick Bay, Whitby, North Yorkshire

The North Sea has long shaped British trade. It’s also been instrumental in how the country is powered, historically providing an abundant source of oil and natural gas. However, this cold fringe off the North Atlantic could also play a vital role in decarbonising the UK’s economy – not because of its full oil and gas reservoirs, but thanks to its empty ones.

In an effort to limit or reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, countries around the world are rushing towards large scale carbon capture usage and storage projects (CCUS). In this process, CO2 is captured from sources, such as energy production and manufacturing, or directly removed from the air, and reused or stored permanently – for example, underground in disused oil and gas reservoirs or other suitable geological formations.

CCUS transport overview graphic

Source: CCS Image Library, Global CCS Institute [Click to view/download]

The International Energy Agency estimates that 100 billion tonnes of CO2 must be stored by 2060 to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Yet the Global CCS Institute reports that, as of 2019, the projects currently in operation or under construction had the capacity to capture and store only 40 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

It’s clear the global capacity for CCUS must accelerate rapidly in the coming decade, but it raises the questions: where can these millions of tonnes of CO2 be stored, and what happens to it once it is?

Where can you store CO2?

The most well-developed approach to storing CO2 is injecting it underground into naturally occurring, porous rock formations such as former natural gas or oil reservoirs, coal beds that can’t be mined, or saline aquifers. These are deep geological formations with deposits of very salty water present in the rock’s pores and most commonly found under the ocean. The North Sea and the area off the US Gulf Coast contain several saline aquifers.

Once CO2 has been captured using CCUS technology, it’s pressurised and turned into a liquid-like form known as ‘supercritical CO2’. From there it’s transported via pipeline and injected into the rocks found in the formations deep below the earth’s surface. This is a process called geological sequestration.

CCUS storage overview graphic

Source: CCS Image Library, Global CCS Institute [Click to view/download]

But while pumping CO2 into the ground is one thing, ensuring it stays there and isn’t released into the atmosphere is another. Fortunately, there are several ways to ensure CO2 is stored safely and securely.

Keeping the lid on CO2 stored underground

Put simply, the most straightforward way underground reservoirs store CO2 is through the solid impermeable rock that typically surrounds them. Once CO2 is injected into a reservoir, it slowly moves upwards through the reservoir until it meets this layer of impermeable rock, which acts like a lid the CO2 cannot pass through. This is what’s referred to as ‘structural storage’ and is the same mechanism that has kept oil and gas locked underground for millions of years.

White chalk stone

White chalk stone

Over time, the CO2 trapped in reservoirs will often begin to chemically react with the minerals of the surrounding rock. The elements bind to create solid, chalky minerals, essentially locking the CO2 into the rock in a process called ‘mineral storage’.

In the case of saline aquifers, as well as structural and mineral storage, the CO2 can dissolve into the salty water in a process called ‘dissolution storage’. Here, the dissolved CO2 slowly descends to the bottom of the aquifer.

In any given reservoir, each (or all) of these processes work to store CO2 indefinitely. And while there remains some possibility of CO2 leakage from a site, research suggests it will be minimal. One study, published in the journal Nature, suggests more than 98% of injected CO2 will remain stored for over 10,000 years.

Storage for the net zero future

In the United States, industrial scale storage is in action in Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Illinois, and there are projects in progress across the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Algeria and Canada. However, there is still a long way to go for CCUS to reach the scale it needed to limit the effects of climate change.

Research has shown that globally, there is an abundance of CO2 storage sites, which could support widespread CCUS adoption. A report compiled by researchers at Imperial College London and E4tech and published by Drax details an estimated 70 billion tonnes of storage capacity in the UK alone. The US, on the other hand, has an estimated storage capacity of 10 trillion tonnes.

It’s clear the capacity for storage is present, it now remains the task of governments and companies to ramp up CCUS projects to begin to reach the scale necessary.  

In the UK, Drax Power Station is piloting bioenergy carbon capture and storage projects (BECCS), which could see it becoming the world’s first negative emissions power station. As part of the Zero Carbon Humber partnership, it could also form a part of the world’s first zero carbon industrial hub in the north of the UK.

Such projects are indicative of the big ambitions CCUS technology could realise – not just decarbonising single sites, but capturing and storing CO2 from entire industries and regions. There is still a way to go to meet that ambition, but it is clear the resources and knowledge necessary to get there are ready to be utilised.

Zero Carbon Humber

Source: Zero Carbon Humber [Click to view/download]

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series:

The UK needs negative emissions from BECCS to reach net zero – here’s why

Early morning sunrise at Drax Power Station

Reaching the UK’s target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 means every aspect of the economy, from shops to super computers, must reduce its carbon footprint – all the way down their supply chains – as close to zero as possible.

But as the country transforms, one thing is certain: demand for electricity will remain. In fact, with increased electrification of heating and transport, there will be a greater demand for power from renewable, carbon dioxide (CO2)-free sources. Bioenergy is one way of providing this power without reliance on the weather and can offer essential grid-stability services, as provided by Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire.

Close up of electricity pylon tower

Close up of electricity pylon tower

Beyond just power generation, more and more reports highlight the important role the next evolution of bioenergy has to play in a net zero UK. And that is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or BECCS.

A carbon negative source of power, abating emissions from other industries

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says negative emissions are essential for the UK to offset difficult-to-decarbonise sectors of the economy and meet its net zero target. This may include direct air capture (DAC) and other negative emissions technologies, as well as BECCS.

BECCS power generation uses biomass grown in sustainably managed forests as fuel to generate electricity. As these forests absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while growing, they offset the amount of COreleased by the fuel when used, making the whole power production process carbon neutral. Adding carbon capture and storage to this process results in removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than is emitted, making it carbon negative.

Pine trees grown for planting in the forests of the US South where more carbon is stored and more wood inventory is grown each year than fibre is extracted for wood products such as biomass pellets

Pine trees grown for planting in the forests of the US South where more carbon is stored and more wood inventory is grown each year than fibre is extracted for wood products such as biomass pellets

This means BECCS can be used to abate, or offset, emissions from other parts of the economy that might remain even as it decarbonises. A report by The Energy Systems Catapult, modelling different approaches for the UK to reach net zero by or before 2050, suggests carbon-intensive industries such as aviation and agriculture will always produce residual emissions.

The need to counteract the remaining emissions of industries such as these make negative emissions an essential part of reaching net zero. While the report suggests that direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) will also play an important role in bringing CO2 levels down, it will take time for the technology to be developed and deployed at the scale needed.

Meanwhile, carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) technology is already deployed at scale in Norway, the US, Australia and Canada. These processes for capturing and storing carbon are applicable to biomass power generation, such as at Drax Power Station, which means BECCS is ready to deploy at scale from a technology perspective today.

As well as counteracting remaining emissions, however, BECCS can also help to decarbonise other industries by enabling the growth of a different low carbon fuel: hydrogen.

Enabling a hydrogen economy

The CCC’s ‘Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy report’ highlights the needs for carbon zero alternatives to fossil fuels – in particular, hydrogen or H2.

Hydrogen produced in a test tube

Hydrogen produced in a test tube

When combusted, hydrogen only produces heat and water vapour, while the ability to store it for long periods makes it a cleaner replacement to the natural gas used in heating today. Hydrogen can also be stored as a liquid, which, coupled with its high energy density makes it a carbon zero alternative to petrol and diesel in heavy transport.

There are various ways BECCS can assist the creation of a hydrogen economy. Most promising is the use of biomass to produce hydrogen through a method known as gasification. In this process solid organic material is heated to more than 700°C but prevented from combusting. This causes the material to break down into gases: hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO). The CO then reacts with water to form CO2 and more H2.

While CO2 is also produced as part of the process, biomass material absorbs CO2 while it grows, making the overall process carbon neutral. However, by deploying carbon capture here, the hydrogen production can also be made carbon negative.

BECCS can more indirectly become an enabler of hydrogen production. The Zero Carbon Humber partnership envisages Drax Power Station as the anchor project for CCUS infrastructure in the region, allowing for the production of ‘blue’ hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas, a fossil fuel. However, the resulting carbon emissions could be captured. The CO2 would then be transported and stored using the same system of pipelines and a natural aquifer under the North Sea as used by BECCS facilities at Drax.

This way of clustering BECCS power and hydrogen production would also allow other industries such as manufactures, steel mills and refineries, to decarbonise.

Lowering the cost of flexible electricity

One of the challenges in transforming the energy system and wider economy to net zero is accounting for the cost of the transition.

The Energy Systems Catapult’s analysis found that it could be kept as low as 1-2% of GDP, while a report by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) projects that deploying BECCS would have little impact on the total cost of the power system if deployed for its negative emissions potential.

The NIC’s modelling found, when taking into consideration the costs and generation capacity of different sources, BECCS would likely be run as a baseload source of power in a net zero future. This would maximise its negative emissions potential.

This means BECCS units would run frequently and for long periods, uninterrupted by changes in the weather, rather than jumping into action to account for peaks in demand. This, coupled with its ability to abate emissions, means BECCS – alongside intermittent renewables such as wind and solar – could provide the UK with zero carbon electricity at a significantly lower cost than that of constructing a new fleet of nuclear power stations.

The report also goes on to say that a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled power stations could also be used to generate flexible back-up electricity, which therefore could be substantially cheaper than relying on a fleet of new baseload nuclear plants.

However, for this to work effectively, decisions need to be made sooner rather than later as to what approach the UK takes to shape the energy system before 2050.

The time to act is now

What is consistent across many different reports is that BECCS will be essential for any version of the future where the UK reaches net zero by 2050. But, it will not happen organically.

Sunset and evening clouds over the River Humber near Sunk Island, East Riding of Yorkshire

Sunset and evening clouds over the River Humber near Sunk Island, East Riding of Yorkshire

A joint Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Greenhouse Gas Removal report, includes research into BECCS, DACCS and other forms of negative emissions in its list of key actions for the UK to reach net zero. It also calls for the UK to capitalise on its access to natural aquifers and former oil and gas wells for CO2 storage in locations such as the North Sea, as well as its engineering expertise, to establish the infrastructure needed for CO2 transport and storage.

However, this will require policies and funding structures that make it economical. A report by Vivid Economics for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) highlights that – just as incentives have made wind and solar viable and integral parts of the UK’s energy mix – BECCS and other technologies, need the same clear, long-term strategy to enable companies to make secure investments and innovate.

However, for policies to make the impact needed to ramp BECCS up to the levels necessary to bring the UK to net zero, action is needed now. The report outlines policies that could be implemented immediately, such as contracts for difference, or negative emissions obligations for residual emitters. For BECCS deployment to expand significantly in the 2030s, a suitable policy framework will need to be put in place in the 2020s.

Beyond just decarbonising the UK, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights that BECCS could be of even more importance globally. Differing scales of BECCS deployment are illustrated in its scenarios where global warming is kept to within 1.5oC levels of pre-industrial levels, as per the Paris Climate agreement.

BECCS has the potential to play a vital role in power generation, creating a hydrogen economy and offsetting other emissions. As it continues to progress, it is becoming increasingly effective and cost efficient, offering a key component of a net zero UK.

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series:

From steel to soil – how industries are capturing carbon

Construction metallic bars in a row

Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is a vital technology in the energy industry, with facilities already in place all over the world aiming to eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

However, for decarbonisation to go far enough to keep global warming below 2oC – as per the Paris Climate Agreement – emission reductions are needed throughout the global economy.

From cement factories to farmland, CCUS technology is beginning to be deployed in a wide variety of sectors around the world.

Construction

The global population is increasingly urban and by 2050 it’s estimated 68% of all people will live in cities. For cities to grow sustainably, it’s crucial the environmental impact of the construction industry is reduced.

Construction currently accounts for 11% of all global carbon emissions. This includes emissions from the actual construction work, such as from vehicle exhaust pipes, but a more difficult challenge is reducing embedded emissions from the production of construction materials.

Steel and concrete are emissions-heavy to make; they require intense heat and use processes that produce further emissions. Deploying widespread CCUS in the production of these two materials holds the key to drastically reducing carbon emissions from the built environment.

Steel manufacturing alone, regardless of the electricity used to power production, is responsible for about 7% of global emissions. Projects aimed at reducing the levels of carbon released in production are planned in Europe and are already in motion in the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Masdar, a renewable energy and sustainability company, formed a joint venture in 2013 with the aim of developing commercial-scale CCUS projects.

In its project with Emirates Steel, which began in 2016, about 800,000 tonnes of CO2 is captured a year from the steel manufacturing plant. This is sequestered and used in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The commercially self-sustaining nature of this project has led to investigation into multiple future industrial-scale projects in the region.

Cement manufacturing, a process that produces as much as 8% of global greenhouse gases, is also experiencing the growth of innovative CCUS projects.

Pouring ready-mixed concrete after placing steel reinforcement to make the road by mixing in construction site

Norcem Cement plant in Brevik, Norway has already begun experimenting with CCUS, calculating that it could capture 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per year and store it under the North Sea. If the project wins government approval, Norcem could commence operations as soon as 2023.

However, as well as reducing emissions from traditional cement manufacturing and the electricity sources that power it, a team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is exploring a new method of cement production that is more CCUS friendly.

By pre-treating the limestone used in cement creation with an electrochemical process, the CO2 produced is released in a pure, concentrated stream that can be more easily captured and sequestered underground or harnessed for products, such as fizzy drinks.

Agriculture

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the agriculture industry. As well as feeding the world, it employs a third of it.

Within this sector, fertiliser plays an essential role in maintaining the global food supply. However, the fertiliser production industry represents approximately 2% of global CO2 emissions.

CCUS technology can reduce the CO2 contributions made by the manufacturing of fertiliser, while maintaining crop reliability. In 2019, Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’s (OGCI) Climate Investments announced funding for what is expected to be the biggest CCUS project in the US.

Tractor with pesticide fungicide insecticide sprayer on farm land top view Spraying with pesticides and herbicides crops

Based at the Wabash Valley Resources fertiliser plant in Indiana, the project will capture between 1.3 and 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 from the ammonia producer per year. The captured carbon will then be stored 2,000 metres below ground in a saline aquifer.

Similarly, since the turn of the millennium Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engineering has deployed CCUS technology at fertiliser plants around Asia. CO2 is captured from natural gas pre-combustion, and used to create the urea fertiliser.

However, the agriculture industry can also capture carbon in more nature-based and cheaper ways.

Soil acts as a carbon sink, capturing and locking in the carbon from plants and grasses that die and decay into it. However, intensive ploughing can damage the soil’s ability to retain CO2.

It only takes slight adjustments in farming techniques, like minimising soil disturbance, or crop and grazing rotations, to enable soil and grasslands to sequester greater levels of CO2 and even make farms carbon negative.

Transport

The transport sector is the fastest growing contributor to climate emissions, according to the World Health Organisation. Electric vehicles and hydrogen fuels are expected to serve as the driving force for much of the sector’s decarbonisation, however, at present these technologies are only really making an impact on roads. There are other essential modes of transport where CCUS has a role to play. 

Climeworks, a Swiss company developing units that capture CO2 directly from the air, has begun working with Rotterdam The Hague Airport to develop a direct air capture (DAC) unit on the airport’s grounds.

Climeworks Plant technology [Source: Climeworks Photo by Julia Dunlop]

hydrogen filling station in the Hamburg harbor city

Hydrogen filling station in Hamburg, Germany.

However, beyond just capturing CO2 from planes taking off, Climeworks aims to use the CO2 to produce a synthetic jet fuel – creating a cycle of carbon reusage that ensures none is emitted into the atmosphere. A pilot project aims to create 1,000 litres of the fuel per day in 2021.

Another approach to zero-carbon transport fuel is the utilisation of hydrogen, which is already powering cars, trains, buses and even spacecraft.

Hydrogen can be produced in a number of ways, but it’s predominantly created from natural gas, through a process in which CO2 is a by-product. CCUS can play an important role here in capturing the CO2 and storing it, preventing it entering the atmosphere.

The hydrogen-powered vehicles then only emit water vapour and heat.

From every industry to every business to everyone

As CCUS technology continues to be deployed at scale and made increasingly affordable, it has the potential to go beyond just large industrial sites, to entire economic regions.

Global Thermostat is developing DAC technology which can be fitted to any factory or plant that produces heat in its processes. The system uses the waste heat to power a DAC unit, either from a particular source or from the surrounding atmosphere. Such technologies along with those already in action like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), can quickly make negative emissions a reality at scale.

However, to capture, transport and permanently store CO2 at the scale needed to reach net zero, collaboration partnerships and shared infrastructure between businesses in industrial regions is essential.

The UK’s Humber region is an example of an industrial cluster where a large number of high-carbon industrial sites sit in close proximity to one another. By installing BECCS and CCUS infrastructure that can be utilised by multiple industries, the UK can have a far greater impact on emissions levels than through individual, small-scale CCUS projects.

Decarbonising the UK and the world will not be achieved by individual sites and industries but by collective action that transcends sectors, regions and supply chains. Implementing CCUS at as large a scale as possible takes a greater stride towards bringing the wider economy and society to net zero.

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series: