Author: Alice Roberts

The next PM must move fast to unlock investment in long duration energy storage

For many years energy security was an issue resolved by complex, continent-wide gas pipelines which stretched from Russia into the heart of Europe.

We now know this reliance on Russian gas didn’t strengthen Europe’s energy security – in fact it weakened it.

The UK is less reliant on foreign gas than many countries in Europe in part due to the renewables revolution which has transformed our energy system over the last decade.

The rollout of biomass, wind and solar power has enabled the UK to decarbonise its power grid at a faster rate than any other major economy. And in order to reduce energy bills in the years ahead we need to have more clean, green, renewable power, which is generated in the UK for the UK.

Getting more green energy onto the grid can only be achieved through partnerships between government and private companies. For businesses like Drax, that means having the right policies now, to make large-scale investment decisions for the future, in vital green energy technologies like pumped storage hydro and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

Drax has submitted planning applications for two major infrastructure projects designed to deliver both of these vital technologies in the 2020s. They form part of a £3bn investment strategy which Drax stands ready to implement this decade, underlining the company’s significant role as a growing, global business at the heart of the green energy transition.

Alongside strengthening the UK’s long-term energy security, these projects will support thousands of jobs and provide a real opportunity for economic growth.

Engineers at Cruachan Power Station

We aim to double the capacity of our Cruachan pumped hydro storage facility in Scotland, supporting energy security and further decarbonisation of the grid, at lower costs.

Over the last two years, due to bottlenecks on the transmission system and a lack of energy storage capacity, enough wind power to supply 800,000 homes each year with renewable electricity, went to waste.

As household bills and global temperatures continue to rise, we can’t afford to let renewable power go to waste like this. We need more storage to harness the wind power available now, as well as the increased capacity being developed the coming years.

The only proven grid scale technology that can store vast quantities of energy for long durations is pumped storage hydro. Sites like Cruachan act like giant water batteries, using excess power from the grid to pump water to an upper reservoir where it is stored, before re-releasing it to generate electricity.

While the UK’s policy and market support mechanisms have evolved to support new build renewables, the current framework isn’t suitable for pumped storage projects that can have a lifespan of many decades.

Drax’s plans would enable more homegrown renewable power to come online to strengthen the UK’s energy security and lower carbon emissions. This additional capacity could be available within eight years.

To secure private investment in these projects, get shovels in the ground and work underway, developers need to know the policy environment they will be operating in.

Abandoning or delaying net zero will not save the country money, it will increase our reliance on foreign gas, leaving households at the mercy of international markets which no UK government can control.

Find out more about Cruachan 2 here.

In Scotland alone there is more than 4.3 GW of storage projects in planning or awaiting construction – this is enough capacity to power around three million homes.

Drax, alongside the developers of some of these other projects, has put forward plans for policies which would create the certainty needed to incentivise investment and kick start work to build the storage capacity this country needs for energy security.

These include introducing a cap and floor regime – the same support mechanism which was instrumental in the successful roll-out of interconnectors in Britain.

I urge the new Conservative Party leader to make the government’s response to these proposals a priority, as part of the package of measures needed to bolster the UK’s long term energy security and to bring the longer-term cost of energy down.

With the right policies to unlock investment, the UK can lead the world in energy storage technologies which are urgently needed to keep the lights on, cut carbon emissions and keep us on track to reach net zero.

This article was first published by Business Green

Getting Britain ready for the next generation of energy projects

Key takeaways:

  • As the UK continues to expand its renewable capacity the cost of curtailing wind generation at times of low demand is increasing, adding £806 million to bills over the last two years.
  • Curtailment costs arise from the grid paying to turn down generation due to energy balancing or system balancing issues.
  • Long-duration storage, such as pumped storage hydro, offers a way to absorb excess wind power, reducing the cost of keeping the system balanced.
  • Drax’s plans to expand Cruachan Power Station would increase the amount of excess power it can absorb from 400 MW to over one gigawatt, and rapidly deliver the same amount back to the grid when needed.
  • New financial mechanisms, such as a cap and floor regime, are needed to enable investors to back capital-intensive, long-term projects that will save consumers and the grid millions.

Meeting big ambitions takes big actions. And there’re few ambitions as big, or as urgent, as achieving a net zero power sector by 2035.

This energy transition must mean more low carbon power sources and fewer fossil fuels. But delivering that future requires new ways of managing power, balancing the grid and a new generation of technologies, innovation, and thinking to make big projects a reality.

As the system evolves and more renewables, particularly wind, come online, the UK is forecast to need 10 times more energy storage to deliver power when wind-levels drop, as well as absorb excess electricity when supply outstrips demand, and to maintain grid stability. Pumped hydro storage offers a tried and tested solution, but with no new long-duration storage projects built for almost 40 years in the UK, the challenges of bringing long-term projects to fruition are less engineering than they are financial.

Drax’s plan to expand Cruachan Power Station to add as much as 600 megawatts (MW) of additional capacity will help support a renewable, more affordable, net zero electricity system. But government action is needed to unlock a new generation of projects that deliver electricity storage at scale.

Reigning in excess wind power

Wind is the keystone power source in the UK’s renewable ambitions. Wind capacity increased from 5.4 GW in 2010 to 25.7 GW in 2021 – enough to provide renewable power for almost 20 million homes – and the government aims to increase this to 50 GW by 2030.

However, wind comes with challenges: the volume of electricity being generated must always match the level of demand. If there is a spike in electricity demand when there are low wind-levels, other technologies, such as electricity storage or carbon-emitting gas power, are required to make up the shortfall.

Conversely, if there is too much wind power being generated and not enough demand for electricity the grid often has to pay windfarms to stop generating. This is known as wind curtailment and it’s becoming more expensive, growing from £300 million during 2020 to more than £500 million in 2021.

An independent report by Lane Clark & Peacock (LCP), by Drax, found that over the last two years curtailing wind power added £806 million to energy bills in Britain.

There can also be a carbon cost to curtailing wind power. As more intermittent renewables come onto the system the grid can become more unstable and difficult to balance. In such an event the National Grid is required to turn to fossil fuel plants, like gas generation, that can deliver balancing and ancillary services like inertia, voltage control and reserve power that wind and solar can’t provide.

“It’s lose-lose for everyone,” says Richard Gow, Senior Government Policy Manager at Drax. “Consumers are paying money to turn off wind and to turn up gas generation because there’re not enough sources of ancillary services on the system or renewable power can’t be delivered to where it’s needed.”

“Curtailment costs have spiked this year because of gas prices, and while they might dip in the next two or three years, curtailment costs are only ever going to increase. If there’s wind power on the system without an increase in storage, the cost of managing the system is only going to go up and up.”

Source: the LCP’s ‘Renewable curtailment and the role of long duration storage’ report, click to view/download here.

The proposed Cruachan 2 expansion would help the grid avoid paying to turn off wind farms by increasing the amount it would be able to absorb from 400 MW to over 1,000 MW, and rapidly deliver the same amount of zero carbon power back to the grid should wind levels suddenly drop or the grid need urgent balancing.

Adding this kind of capability is a huge engineering project, involving huge new underground caverns, tunnels and waterways carved out of the rock below Ben Cruachan. However, the challenge in such a project lies less with the scale of the engineering than with its financeability.

From blueprints to real change

The original Cruachan Power Station’s six-year construction period began in 1959. The work of digging into the mountainside was carried out by a team of 1,300 men, known affectionately as the Tunnel Tigers, armed with hand drills and gelignite explosives in an era before modern health and safety practices.

Engineer working at Cruachan Power Station

Expanding Cruachan in the 21st century will be quite a different, and safer process, and one that’s practically, straightforward.

“There is no reason why we physically couldn’t build Cruachan 2,” says Gow. “Detailed engineering work has indicated that this is a very feasible project. There’s no technological reason or physical constraint that would prevent us. It has a large upfront cost, and requires drilling into a mountain, but the challenge is much more on the financial, particularly securing the investment, side of the project.”

Pumped storage hydro facilities today generate their revenues from three different markets: the capacity market, where they receive a flat rate per kilowatt they deliver to the grid; the wholesale and balancing market, where they buy power to store when it’s abundant and cheap and sell it back to the grid when it’s needed, more valuable and used to support the Electricity System Operator in matching supply and demand on a second-by-second basis; and through ancillary services contracts, dedicated to specific stability services.

These available markets present challenges for ambitious, capital-intensive projects designed to operate at scale. With the exception of the capacity market, revenues from these markets are often volatile and difficult to forecast, with no long-term contracts available.

Sourcing the investment needed to build projects on the scale of Cruachan 2 requires mechanisms to attract investors comfortable with long project development lead times that offer stable, low risk, rates of return in the long-term.

Cap and floor

An approach that can provide sufficient certainty to investors that income will cover the cost of debt and unlock finance for new projects is known as a ‘cap and floor’ regime.

With cap and floor, a facility’s revenues are subject to minimum and maximum levels. If revenues are below the ‘floor’ consumers would top-up revenues, while earnings above the ‘cap’ would be returned to consumers. This means investors can secure upfront funding safe in the knowledge of revenue certainty in the long term, whilst also offering protection to consumers.

Such an approach won’t attract investors looking to make a fast buck, but the vital role that it could play in the ongoing future of the UK energy system offers a long-term, stable return. At the same time, the system would save both the grid and energy consumers hundreds of millions of pounds.

The cap and floor system is also not unique, with a similar approach currently used for interconnectors, the sub-marine cables that physically connect the UK’s energy system to nearby countries allowing the UK to trade electricity with them. This means investors are already familiar with cap and floor structures, how they operate and what kind of returns they can expect.

“It’s not just pumped storage hydro that this could apply to,” explains Gow. “There are other, different large-scale, long-duration storage technologies that this could also apply to.”

“It would give us revenue certainty so that we can invest to support the system and reduce the cost of curtailment while ensuring consumers get value for their money.”

The Turbine Hall inside Cruachan Power Station

Cruachan was originally only made possible through the advocacy and actions of MP and wartime Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston. Then it was needed to help absorb excess generation from the country’s new fleet of nuclear power stations and release this to meet short term spikes in demand. Today it’s renewable wind the system must adapt to.

For the UK to continue to meet an ever-changing energy system the government must be prepared to act and enable projects at scale, that bring long-term transformation for a net zero future.

Why and how is carbon dioxide transported?

What is carbon transportation?

Carbon transportation is the movement of carbon from one place to another. In nature, carbon moves through the carbon cycle. In industries like energy, however, carbon transportation refers to the physical transfer of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the point of capture to the point of usage or storage.

Why does carbon need to be transported?

Anthropogenic (man-made) CO2 released in processes like power generation leads to the direct increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.

However, these emissions can be captured as part of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The CO2 is then transported for safe and permanent storage in geological formations deep underground.

Capturing and storing CO2 prevents it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. Processes that can deliver negative emissions – such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture and storage (DACS) – aim to permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere through CCS.

In CCS, carbon must be transported from the site where it’s captured to a site where it can be permanently stored. This means it needs to travel from a power station or factory to a geological formation like a saline aquifer or depleted oil and gas reservoirs.

As of September 2021, there were 27 operational CCS facilities around the world, with the combined capacity to capture around 40 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of CO2. It’s estimated that the UK alone has 70 billion tonnes of potential CO2 storage space in sandstone rock formations under the North Sea.

How is carbon transported?

CO2 can be transported via trucks or ships, but the most common and efficient method is by pipeline. Moving gases of any kind through pipelines is based on pressure. Gases travel from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Compressing gas to a high pressure allows it to flow to other locations.

Gas pipelines are common all around the world, including those transporting CO2. In the US there are, for instance, more than 50 CO2 pipelines – covering around 6,500 km and transporting approximately 68 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

Gas takes up less volume when it’s compressed, and even less when it is liquefied, solidified, or hydrated. Therefore, before being transported, captured CO2 is often compressed and liquefied until it becomes a supercritical fluid.

In a supercritical state, CO2 has the density of a liquid but the viscosity (thickness) of a gas and is, therefore, easier to transport through pipelines. It’s also 50-80% less dense than water, with a viscosity that is 100 times lower than liquid.

This means it can be loaded onto ships in greater quantities and that there is less friction when it’s moving through pipes and, subsequently, into geological storage sites.

How safe is it to transport carbon?

It’s no riskier to transport CO2 via pipeline or ship than it is to transport oil and natural gas, and existing oil and natural gas pipelines can be repurposed to transport CO2.

To enable the safe use of CO2 pipelines, CCS projects must ensure captured CO2 complies with strict purity and temperature specifications, as well as making sure CO2 is dry and free from impurities that could impact pipelines’ operations.

Whilst there are a growing number of CCS transport systems around the world, CCS is still is a relatively new field but research is underway to identify best practises, materials and technologies to optimise the process. This includes research around potential risks and techniques for leak mitigation and remediation.

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive regulates health, safety, and integrity issues for all natural gas pipelines, which are covered by legislation. The legislation ensures the safety of pipelines, pressure systems and offshore installations and can serve as a strong foundation for CO2 transport regulation.

Fast facts

Go deeper 

Cruachan Power Station: Protecting biodiversity while generating power

Key points:

  • The Scottish Highlands are home to a wide variety of landscapes, with a wealth of biodiversity that must be preserved.
  • Cruachan pumped storage hydro station sits within Ben Cruachan and has operated for nearly 60-years without damaging wildlife.
  • Regular surveys and reporting allow Drax to understand the health of different fauna and species over time.
  • It’s promising that even species of bird and insects that are declining in other parts of the UK are regularly spotted around Cruachan.
  • The expansion of the power station has required and will continue to need careful assessment of the area’s biodiversity to minimise any impact the project could cause.

The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the UK’s most stunning natural wonders. From dramatic plunging lochs to the craggy, ice capped Munros, the varied landscape holds some of the most biodiverse areas in the UK. The region’s fauna ranges from red deer to golden eagles, while its flora includes the ancient oak and moss-covered forests that make up the ‘temperate rainforest’ of the Atlantic coast.

Preserving these landscapes and the life that thrives in them is crucial to both the environment and economy of the region. It’s the job of Roddy Davies, Health, Safety, and Environmental Advisor at Drax’s Cruachan Power Station to ensure operations at the site do not damage the natural environment.

“This is a very biodiverse, rich environment. There are a lot of different species, a large variety of natural habitats and plant life,” says Davies. “It’s good that we can say we’ve operated here for nearly 60 years, and all of that is still there. It’s testament that we don’t have a demonstrable negative effect on the wildlife that lives around us.”

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

Energy storage inside a mountain

The pumped storage hydro station sits a kilometre inside Ben Cruachan, a Munro peak in the Western Highland region of Argyll and Bute. It’s not an area you would normally associate with power generation, but it’s perfect for pumped storage hydro. The site has two bodies of water at differing elevations, Loch Awe at the bottom and a reservoir at the top allowing Cruachan to generate power when it’s needed, as well as absorb electricity when there is an excess on the grid by pumping water back up the mountain. Storing it until power is needed and helping to keep the grid balanced.

The subterranean nature of the power station means the massive machinery, including the four reversible turbines, and the heat and noise they generate, is hidden underground.

Features on the surface are limited to a few buildings by the entrance tunnel at the banks of Loch Awe, and the dam which contains the upper reservoir on the slopes of Ben Cruachan, as well as several pylons and cables transporting electricity. Even the 316-metre buttress dam takes the landscape into account.

“When Cruachan was built in the ’50s and ’60s, the visual impact of it was very much in the minds of the people who built it and the authorities who approved it. The dam is almost impossible to see from a public place,” explains Davies. “Our presence on the surface is very limited. All the busy goings-on are underground. There’s lots of noise underground, but it doesn’t travel outside.”

Ensuring that the area surrounding Drax’s operation continues to function without damaging the surrounding environment is an ongoing process. Davies deploys annual biodiversity surveys and reporting that gives Drax over a decade of information and analysis to help identify trends.

The wildlife of Ben Cruachan

The Cruachan Power Station Biodiversity Survey for 2021 is the 11th completed by Blue Leaf Nature, a biodiversity service provider. The comprehensive report highlights the incredible diversity of fauna surrounding Cruachan, some of which are declining in other parts of the country.

While the majestic red stags found in other parts of the Highlands are extremely uncommon around Cruachan, 2021 was a particularly exciting year for other types of large mammals. Pine martens – a cat-sized relative of the weasel – are relatively common, appearing alongside red squirrels, red foxes, and otters. Badgers were also added to the site’s list of species for the first time.

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

Mammals, however, are exceeded by the range of birds found around Cruachan, with 53 different species spotted in 2021. Of these, 17 species appear on the Birds of Conservation Concern Five’s red list, the highest threat status to the UK’s bird population, including the Ring Ouzel, Yellowhammer and Tree Pipet. A further 27 appear on the Regional International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Additionally, six of the spotted species are considered endangered (including Herring Gull and Northern Wheatear) and 11 vulnerable by the IUCN.

Sightings of these threatened species around Cruachan come despite particularly unfavourable weather in 2021. One of the driest Aprils on record followed by an exceptionally wet May disrupted the bird breeding season. This in turn resulted in a difficult nesting season, exacerbated by food shortages due to the weather’s effect on insect life.

In the report’s survey of invertebrates, 150 different species were recorded in 2021, down from 170 in 2018. However, it’s promising that among Cruachan’s creepy-crawlies are many that are in decline elsewhere in the UK, with the numbers of some important insect types are increasing. Dragonfly and damselfly species, for example, increased from five in the previous survey to nine in 2021.

Moths and butterflies are particularly important to monitor, as Davies explains: “they’re a very strong indicator species for the health and quality of an ecosystem. They’re also very sensitive to climatic changes and  react quickly to temperature change.”

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

In 2021, 78 moth species were recorded around Cruachan, including one of Butterfly Conservation’s noted priority species (Yellow-ringed carpet), as well as six species that feature on IUCN’s red or amber lists. There were 11 butterfly species recorded in 2021, including four priority species, as well as two newly spotted species: the Small Copper and the Chequered Skipper.

That species in decline around the country are increasingly thriving at Cruachan is further testament to the power station’s lack of disruption to the environment. And as the UK’s electricity system continues to evolve, and Cruachan power station with it, closely observing the surrounding environment and its inhabitants will become even more important.

Expanding Cruachan while preserving nature

While Cruachan first started generating and storing power in the 1960s, its capabilities are becoming ever more critical as the national grid decarbonises and power generation becomes increasingly decentralised. This is why Drax is undertaking an ambitious project to expand Cruachan.

Cruachan 2 would add a further 600 MW of generation capacity to the plant for a total of 1.04 GW of power. By providing stability services to the grid, the expansion could enable an additional 300-gigawatt hours of renewable power to come online.

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

The project is epic in scale. New underground tunnels and subterranean caverns will house the reversible pump-turbines and will be carved out of the mountain, vastly increasing the size of the power station. But as with any activity in such a landscape, careful planning is essential. Detailed surveys and assessments of the area are a key requirement for planning approval.

“We need to acknowledge what’s here and show that we understand what surveys have found,” says Davies. “Then we have to present our proposals for how we will protect them and mitigate any potential disturbance.”

An advantage of pumped storage hydro is that much of the intensive excavating and construction work will take place underground, with little disturbance on the surface. Cruachan 2 has the added benefit of utilising Cruachan’s existing infrastructure. For example, it would not require flooding a valley to create a new upper reservoir.

Ultimately, Cruachan’s half century-plus of operation has not damaged or degraded the biodiversity of the Western Highlands landscape. And Davies is keen to ensure that legacy is preserved: “As a company, it’s not just something we have to do; we have a moral responsibility to be a responsible operator and look after what’s around us.”

View the Cruachan Power Station Biodiversity Survey 2021 here and find out more about Green Tourism at Cruachan here

What is the carbon cycle?

What is the carbon cycle?

All living things contain carbon and the carbon cycle is the process through which the element continuously moves from one place in nature to another. Most carbon is stored in rock and sediment, but it’s also found in soil, oceans, and the atmosphere, and is produced by all living organisms – including plants, animals, and humans.

Carbon atoms move between the atmosphere and various storage locations, also known as reservoirs, on Earth. They do this through mechanisms such as photosynthesis, the decomposition and respiration of living organisms, and the eruption of volcanoes.

As our planet is a closed system, the overall amount of carbon doesn’t change. However, the level of carbon stored in a particular reservoir, including the atmosphere, can and does change, as does the speed at which carbon moves from one reservoir to another.

What is the role of photosynthesis in the carbon cycle?

Carbon exists in many different forms, including the colourless and odourless gas that is carbon dioxide (CO2). During photosynthesis, plants absorb light energy from the sun, water through their roots, and CO2 from the air – converting them into oxygen and glucose.

The oxygen is then released back into the air, while the carbon is stored in glucose, and used for energy by the plant to feed its stem, branches, leaves, and roots. Plants also release CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration.

Animals – including humans – who consume plants similarly digest the glucose for energy purposes. The cells in the human body then break down the glucose, with CO2 emitted as a waste product as we exhale.

CO2 is also produced when plants and animals die and are broken down by organisms such as fungi and bacteria during decomposition.

What is the fast carbon cycle?

The natural process of plants and animals releasing CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration and decomposition and plants absorbing it via photosynthesis is known as the biogenic carbon cycle. Biogenic refers to something that is produced by or originates from a living organism. This cycle also incorporates CO2 absorbed and released by the world’s oceans.

The biogenic carbon cycle is also called the “fast” carbon cycle, as the carbon that circulates through it does so comparatively quickly. There are nevertheless substantial variations within this faster cycle. Reservoir turnover times – a measure of how long the carbon remains in one location – range from years for the atmosphere to decades through to millennia for major carbon sinks on land and in the ocean.

What is the slow carbon cycle?

In some circumstances, plant and animal remains can become fossilised. This process, which takes millions of years, eventually leads to the formation of fossil fuels. Coal comes from the remains of plants that have been transformed into sedimentary rock. And we get crude oil and natural gas from plankton that once fell to the ocean floor and was, over time, buried by sediment.

The rocks and sedimentary layers where coal, crude oil, and natural gas are found form part of what is known as the geological or slow carbon cycle. From this cycle, carbon is returned to the atmosphere through, for example, volcanic eruptions and the weathering of rocks. In the slow carbon cycle, reservoir turnover times exceed 10,000 years and can stretch to millions of years.

How do humans impact the carbon cycle?

Left to its own devices, Earth can keep CO2 levels balanced, with similar amounts of CO2 released into and absorbed from the air. Carbon stored in rocks and sediment would slowly be emitted over a long period of time. However, human activity has upset this natural equilibrium.

Burning fossil fuel releases carbon that’s been sequestered in geological formations for millions of years, transferring it from the slow to the fast (biogenic) carbon cycle. This influx of fossil carbon leads to excessive levels of atmospheric CO2, that the biogenic carbon cycle can’t cope with.

As a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun between the Earth and its atmosphere, CO2 is essential to human existence. Without CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the planet could become too cold to sustain life.

However, the drastic increase in atmospheric CO2 due to human activity means that too much heat is now retained between Earth and the atmosphere. This has led to a continued rise in the average global temperature, a development that is part of climate change.

Where does biomass fit into the carbon cycle?

One way to help reduce fossil carbon is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, including sustainably sourced biomass. Feedstock for biomass energy includes plant material, wood, and forest residue – organic matter that absorbs CO2 as part of the biogenic carbon cycle. When the biomass is combusted in energy or electricity generation, the biogenic carbon stored in the organic matter is released back into the atmosphere as CO2.

This is distinctly different from the fossil carbon released by oil, gas, and coal. The addition of carbon capture and storage to bioenergy – creating BECCS – means the biogenic carbon absorbed by the organic matter is captured and sequestered, permanently removing it from the atmosphere. By capturing CO2 and transporting it to geological formations – such as porous rocks – for permanent storage, BECCS moves CO2 from the fast to the slow carbon cycle.

This is the opposite of burning fossil fuels, which takes carbon out of geological formations (the slow carbon cycle) and emits it into the atmosphere (the fast carbon cycle). Because BECCS removes more carbon than it emits, it delivers negative emissions.

Fast facts

  • According to a 2019 study, human activity including the burning of fossil fuels releases between 40 and 100 times more carbon every year than all volcanic eruptions around the world.
  • In March 2021, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that average CO2 in the atmosphere for that month was 14 parts per million. This was 50% higher than at the time of the Industrial Revolution (1750-1800).
  • There is an estimated 85 billion gigatonne (Gt) of carbon stored below the surface of the Earth. In comparison, just 43,500 Gt is stored on land, in oceans, and in the atmosphere.
  • Forests around the world are vital carbon sinks, absorbing around 7.6 million tonnes of CO2 every year.

Go deeper

How biomass can enable a hydrogen economy

Key points:

  • Hydrogen as a fuel offers a carbon-free alternative for hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy road transport, domestic heating, and industries like steel and cement.
  • There are several methods of producing hydrogen, the most common being steam methane reforming, which can be a carbon-intensive process.
  • Biomass gasification with CCS is a form of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) that can produce hydrogen and negative emissions – removing CO2 permanently from the atmosphere.
  • The development of both BECCS and hydrogen technologies will determine how intrinsically connected the two are in a net zero future.

Reaching net zero means more than just transitioning to renewable and low carbon electricity generation. The whole UK economy must transform where its energy comes from to low-emissions sources. This includes ‘hard-to-abate’ industries like steel, cement, and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), as well as areas such as domestic heating

One solution is hydrogen. The ultra-light element can be used as a fuel that when combusted in air produces only heat, water vapour, and nitrous oxide. As hydrogen is a carbon-free fuel, a so-called ‘hydrogen economy’ has the potential to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors.

While hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel its production methods can be carbon-intensive. For a hydrogen economy to operate within a net zero UK carbon-neutral means of producing it are needed at scale. And biomass, energy from organic material – with or without carbon capture and storage (in the case of BECCS)– could have a key role to play.

In January 2022, the UK government launched a £5 million Hydrogen BECCS Innovation Programme. It aims to develop technologies that can both produce hydrogen for hard-to-decarbonise sectors and removeCO2 from the atmosphere. The initiative highlights the connected role that biomass and hydrogen can have in supporting a net zero UK.

Producing hydrogen at scale

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. However, it rarely exists on its own. It’s more commonly found alongside oxygen in the familiar form of H2O. Because of its tendency to form tight bonds with other elements, pure streams of hydrogen must be manufactured rather than extracted from a well, like oil or natural gas.

As much as 70 million tonnes of hydrogen is produced each year around the world, mainly to make ammonia fertiliser and chemicals such as methanol, or to remove impurities during oil refining. Of that hydrogen, 96% is made from fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, through a process called steam methane reforming, of which hydrogen and CO2 are products. Without the use of carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies the CO2 is released into the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change.

Another method of producing hydrogen is electrolysis. This process uses an electric current to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Like charging an electric vehicle, this method is only low carbon if the electricity sources powering it are as well.

For electrolysis to support hydrogen production at scale depends on a net zero electricity grid built around renewable electricity sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and biomass.

However, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) offers another means of producing carbon-free renewable hydrogen, while also removing emissions from the atmosphere and storing it – permanently.

Producing hydrogen and negative emissions with biomass 

Biomass gasification is the process of subjecting biomass (or any organic matter) to high temperatures but with a limited amount of oxygen added that prevents complete combustion from occurring.

The process breaks the biomass down into a gaseous mixture known as syngas, which can be used as an alternative to methane-based natural gas in heating and electricity generation or used to make fuels. Through a water-gas shift reaction, the syngas can be converted into pure streams of CO2 and hydrogen.

Ordinarily, the hydrogen could be utilised while the CO2 is released. In a BECCS process, however, the COis captured and stored safely and permanently. The result is negative emissions.

Here’s how it works: BECCS starts with biomass from sustainably managed forests. Wood that is not suitable for uses like furniture or construction – or wood chips and residues from these industries – is often considered waste. In some cases, it’s simply burnt to dispose of it. However, this low-grade wood can be used for energy generation as biomass.

When biomass is used in a process like gasification, the CO2 that was absorbed by trees as they grew and subsequently stored in the wood is released. However, in a BECCS process, the CO2 is captured and transported to locations where it can be stored permanently.

The overall process removes CO2 from the atmosphere while producing hydrogen. Negative emissions technologies like BECCS are considered essential for the UK and the world to reach net zero and tackle climate change.

Building a collaborative net zero economy  

How big a role hydrogen will play in the future is still uncertain. The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) 2018 report ‘Hydrogen in a low carbon economy’ outlines four scenarios. These range from hydrogen production in 2050 being able to provide less than 100 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy a year to more than 700 TWh.

Similarly, how important biomass is to the production of hydrogen varies across different scenarios. The CCC’s report puts the amount of hydrogen produced in 2050 via BECCS between 50 TWh in some scenarios to almost 300 TWh in others. This range depends on factors such as the technology readiness level of biomass gasification. If it can be proven – technical work Drax is currently undertaking – and at scale, then BECCS can deliver on the high-end forecast of hydrogen production.

The volumes will also depend on the UK’s commitment to BECCS and sustainable biomass. The CCC’s ‘Biomass in a low carbon economy’ report offers a ‘UK BECCS hub’ scenario in which the UK accesses a greater proportion of the global biomass resource than countries with less developed carbon capture and storage systems, as part of a wider international effort to sequester and store CO2. The scenario assumes that the UK builds on its current status and continues to be a global leader in BECCS supply chains, infrastructure, and geological storage capacity. If this can be achieved, biomass and BECCS could be an intrinsic part of a hydrogen economy.

There are still developments being made in hydrogen and BECCS, which will determine how connected each is to the other and to a net zero UK. This includes the feasibility of converting HGVs and other gas systems to hydrogen, as well as the efficiency of carbon capture, transport and storage systems. The cost of producing hydrogen and carrying out BECCS are also yet to be determined.

The right government policies and incentives that encourage investment and protect jobs are needed to progress the dual development of BECCS and hydrogen. Success in both fields can unlock a collaborative net zero economy that delivers a carbon-free fuel source in hydrogen and negative emissions through BECCS.

Storage solutions: 3 ways energy storage can get the grid to net zero

Key points:

  • Energy storage plays a crucial role in the UK electricity system by not only providing reserve power for when demand is high but also absorbing excess power when demand is low.
  • The UK’s electricity system’s growing dependency on intermittent renewables means the amount of energy storage needed will increase to as much as 30 GW by 2050.
  • There are three different durations of energy storage needed to help balance the grid: short-term, day-to-day and long term.
  • It will take a range of technologies including batteries, pumped storage hydro and new approaches to meet the storage demands of a net zero grid.

When you turn on a lightbulb – in 10, 20, or 30 years – the same thing will happen. Electricity will light up the room. But where that electricity comes from will be different. As the country moves toward net zero emissions, low carbon and renewable power sources will become the norm. However, it’s not as simple as swapping in renewables for the fossil fuels the grid was built around.

Weather dependant sources, like wind and solar, are intermittent – meaning other sources are needed at times when there’s little wind or no sunshine to meet the country’s electricity demand. Equally as challenging to manage, however, is what to do when there’s an excess of power being generated at times of low demand.

Energy storage offers a low carbon means of delivering power at times of low supply, as well as absorbing any excess of generated power when demand is low, helping to balance and stabilise the grid. As the electricity system transforms through a range of low-carbon and renewable technologies, the amount of energy storage on the UK grid will need to expand from 3 GW of today to over 30 GW in the coming decades.

The storage solution

Even as the UK’s electricity system transforms, from fossil fuels to renewables, the way the grid operates remains primarily the same. Central to that is the principle that the supply of electricity being generated must always match the demand on a second-by-second basis.

Too little or too much power on the system can cause power outages and damage equipment. National Grid needs to be able to call on reserve power sources to meet demand when supply is low or pay to curtail renewable sources’ output when demand drops. During the summer of 2020, for example, lower demand due to Covid-19 coupled with high renewable output resulted in balancing costs 40% above expectations.

“There is a lot of offshore wind coming online in Scotland, as much as 11 GW by 2030 and a further 25 GW planned,” explains Steve Marshall, a Development Manager at Drax.

Offshore wind farm along the coast of Scotland

“It’s great because it increases the amount of renewable power on the system, but the transmission lines between Scotland and England can become saturated as much as 30-40% of the time because there is too much power.”

Electricity storage can provide a source of reserve power, as well as absorb excess electricity. These capabilities are crucial for balancing the grid and ensuring that frequency remains within a stable operating range of 50 Hertz, as well as providing other ancillary services.

Whether it’s absorbing power or delivering electricity needed to keep the grid stable, in energy storage, timing is everything.

There are three main time periods electricity storage needs to operate over:

  1. Fast-acting, short term electricity

Because electricity supply must always match demand, sudden changes mean the grid needs to respond immediately to ensure frequency and voltage remain stable, and electricity safe to use.

Batteries are considered the fastest technology for responding to a sudden spike in demand or an abrupt loss of supply.

Battery technology has evolved rapidly in recent decades as innovations like lithium-ion batteries, such as those used in electric cars, and emerging solid-state batteries become more affordable and more commonplace. This makes it more feasible to deploy large-scale installations that can absorb and store excess power from the grid.

“Batteries are good for near-instantaneous responses. It can be a matter of milliseconds for a battery to deploy power,” says Marshall. “If there’s a sudden problem with frequency or voltage, batteries can respond – it’s something that’s quite unique to them.”

The speed at which batteries can deploy and absorb electricity makes them useful grid assets. However, even very large battery setups can only discharge power for around two hours. If, for example, the wind dropped off for a long period the grid needs a longer-duration supply of stored power.

  1. Powering day-to-day changes in supply, demand, and the grid

When it comes to managing the daily variations of supply and demand the grid needs to be able to call on reserves of power for when there are unexpected changes in the weather or electricity demand from users. Pumped storage hydro power offers a low carbon way to provide huge amounts of electricity, quickly and for periods that can last as long as eight or even 24 hours.

The technology works by moving water between two reservoirs of water at different elevations. When there is demand for electricity water is released from the upper reservoir, which rushes down a series of pipes, spinning water turbines, generating electricity. However, when there is an excess of power on the electricity system the same turbines can reverse and absorb electricity to pump water from the lower to the upper reservoir, storing it there as a massive ‘water battery’.

Pumped storage hydro is a long-established technology, having been developed since the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland. In the UK today there are four pumped storage hydro power stations in Scotland and Wales, with a total capacity of 2.8 GW.

Among those is the Drax-owned Cruachan Power Station in the Scottish Highlands. The plant is made up of four generating/pumping turbines located inside Ben Cruachan between Loch Awe and an upper reservoir holding 10 million cubic metres of water.

Turbine Hall at Cruachan Power Station

Pumped hydro storage facilities can rapidly begin generating large volumes of power in as little as 30 seconds or less. The ability to switch their turbines between different modes – pump, generate, and spin mode to provide inertia to the gird without producing power – make pumped storage hydro plants versatile assets for the gird.

“How Cruachan operates depends on weather,” says Marshall. “We make as many 1000 mode changes a month, that’s how frequently Cruachan is called on by National Grid.”

As the electricity system transforms there will be a greater need for flexible energy storage like pumped storage hydro, this is why Drax is kickstarting plans to expand Cruachan Power Station, however, the specific conditions needed for such facilities can make new projects difficult and expensive.

Cruachan 2, to the east of the original power station, will add up to 600 MW in generating capacity, more than doubling the site’s total capacity to more than 1GW. By increasing the number of turbines operating at the facility it increases the range of services that the grid can call upon from the site.

  1. Long-term electricity solutions

However, storage technologies as they exist today cannot alone offer all the solutions the UK will need to achieve its net zero targets. While technologies like pumped storage can generate for the better part of a day, longer periods of unfavourable conditions for renewables will need new approaches.

In March 2021, for example, the UK experienced its longest cold and calm spell in more than a decade, with wind farms operating at just 11% of their capacity for 11 days straight, according to Electric Insights.

The shortfall in the country’s primary source of renewable power was made up for by gas power stations. But in a net zero future, such responses will only be feasible if they’re part of carbon capture and storage systems or replaced by other carbon neutral or energy storage solutions.

Generating enough power to supply an electrified future, as well as being able to take pressure off the grid and provide balancing services will require a range of technologies working in tandem over extended periods.

Interconnectors with neighbouring countries, for example, can work alongside storage solutions to shed excess power to where there is greater demand. Similarly, rather than curtailing wind or solar power, extra electricity could be used for electrolysis to produce hydrogen. Other functions may include demand side response where heavy power users are incentivised to reduce their electricity usage during peak periods helping to reduce demand.

To achieve stable, reliable, net zero electricity systems the UK needs to act now to not only replace fossil fuels with renewables but put the essential energy storage and balancing solutions in place, that means electricity is there when you turn on a lightbulb.

What is sustainable forest management?

Sustainable forest management is frequently defined in terms of providing a balance of social, environmental, and economic benefits, not just for today but for the future too. It might be seen as the practice of maintaining forests to ensure they remain healthy, absorb more carbon than they release, and can continue to be enjoyed and used by future generations.

To achieve this, foresters apply science, knowledge, and standards that help ensure forests continue to play an important role in the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Managed forests, also called working forests, fulfil a variety of environmental, social, and economic functions. These range from forests managed to attract certain desired wildlife species, to forests grown to provide saw timber and reoccurring revenue for landowners.

How are forests sustainably managed?

How forests are managed depends on landowner goals – managing for recreation and wildlife, focusing on maximising production of wood products, or both. Each forest requires management tailored to its owner’s or manager’s objectives.

There are many ways to manage forests to keep them healthy – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – but keeping track of how they are doing can be tricky. One alternative for monitoring forests is to use satellite imagery.

One common sustainable forestry practice is thinning, which involves periodically removing smaller, unhealthy, or diseased trees to enable stronger ones to thrive. Thinning reduces competition between trees for resources like sunlight and water, and it can also help promote biodiversity by creating more space for other forest flora.

The wood removed from forests through thinning is sometimes not high-quality enough to be used in industries such as construction or furniture. However, the biomass industry can use it to make compressed wood pellets; a feedstock for renewable source electricity.

By providing a market for low-quality wood, pellet production encourages landowners to carry out thinnings. This practice improves the health of the forest, and helps support better growth, greater carbon storage, and creates more valuable woodland.

Fast facts

What are the environmental benefits of sustainably managed forests?

Through their ability to act as carbon sinks, forests are an important part of meeting global climate goals like the Paris Agreement and the UK’s own target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

When managed effectively through thinning or active harvesting, and replanting and regeneration, forests can often sequester – or absorb and store – more carbon than forests that are left untouched, increasing productivity and improving planting material.

Harvesting trees before they reach an age when growth slows or plateaus can help prevent fire damage, pests, and disease, so timing of final cutting is important. Though the vast majority of timber from such cutting will go to other markets (construction, furniture etc) and secure higher prices from those markets, being able to sell lower quality wood for biomass provides the landowner with some extra revenue.

Sustainably managed forests also help achieve other environmental goals, such as sustaining biodiversity, protecting sensitive sites and providing clean air and water. Managed forests also have substantial water absorption capacity preventing flooding by slowing the flow of sudden downpours and helping to prevent nearby rivers and streams from overfilling.

Wood from working forests also help tackle climate change in that high-value wood from harvested trees can be used to make timber for the construction or furniture sectors. These wood products lock up carbon for extended periods of time, and the wood can be used at end-of life to displace fossil fuels. Using wood also means materials such as concrete, bricks or steel are not used, and these materials have a large carbon footprint compared to wood.

What are the socioeconomic benefits of sustainably managed forests?

There are also social and economic benefits to managing forests. Sustainably managed working forests make vital contributions both to people and to the planet.

The commercial use of wood in industries like furniture and construction drives revenue for landowners. This encourages landowners to continue to replant forests and manage them in a sustainable way that continues to deliver returns.

Healthy forests can also improve living standards for local communities for jobs and helping to address unemployment in rural regions. Managed forests can also improve access for recreation. On a larger scale, sustainable forestry can offer a valuable export for regions and nations and foster trade between countries.

Go deeper 

How is carbon stored?

Carbon storage is the process of capturing and trapping that CO2. This can occur naturally in the form of carbon sinks like forests, oceans, and soils that store carbon. However, it can also be manually carried out through technology.   

One of the most well-established ways of storing carbon through the use of technology is by injecting CO2 into naturally occurring geological formations that can lock in or sequester the molecule on a permanent basis. Carbon storage is the final phase of the carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS) process.

Why do we need to store carbon?

Global bodies like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as the UK’s own Climate Change Committee, emphasise carbon capture and storage as crucial to achieving net zero emissions and meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rises to within 1.5oC.

This includes supporting forest growth through afforestation and reforestation, and other nature-based solutions to store carbon, alongside CCUS technology.

The European Commission also highlights CCUS’s role in balancing increased energy demand and continued fossil fuel use in the future, with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent them entering the atmosphere.

How is carbon captured and transported to storage?

In naturally occurring examples, forests and ocean fauna absorb carbon through photosynthesis. When the vegetation eventually decomposes the carbon is sequestered into soil and seabeds.

Carbon can also be captured from emissions sources such as factories or power plants. The carbon is captured either pre-combustion, where it is removed from the fuel source, or post-combustion, where it is removed from exhaust fumes in the form of CO2.

The CO2 is then converted into a supercritical state where it has the viscosity of a gas but the density of a liquid, meaning it can travel more easily through pipelines. It can also be transported via trucks and ships, but pipelines are the most efficient.

Where can carbon be stored?

Natural carbon sinks differ all over the world, from peatlands in Scotland to Pacific coral reefs to the massive forests that cover countries like Russia, Canada, and Brazil. Wooden buildings also act as carbon storage as they maintain the carbon within the wood for long time periods.

The CO2 captured by manmade technologies can also be stored in different types of geological formation: unused natural gas reserves, saline aquifers, and un-minable coal mines.

The North Sea, with its expansive layers of porous sandstone, also offers the UK alone an estimated 70 billion tonnes of potential CO2 storage space.

If negative emissions technologies (which actively remove emissions from the atmosphere) were to capture and store the equivalent amount of CO2 as the 258 million tonnes expected to remain in the UK economy in 2050, it would take up just 0.36% of the available storage space.

Years of research by the oil and gas industries mean many such geological structures have been mapped and are well understood all around the world.

Carbon storage fast facts

How is the carbon kept in place?

In nature-based carbon sinks the carbon does not always remain in one location. In a forest, for example, trees and plants will hold carbon until the end of their lifetime after which they decompose, releasing some CO2 into the atmosphere while some is sequestered into soil.

When CO2 captured through CCUS is stored several things can happen to it in a geological storage site. It can be caught in the minute intervening spaces within the rock through capillary action, or trapped by a layer of impermeable cap-rock, which prevents it from moving upwards.

CO2 may also dissolve in the water and then sinks as it is heavier than normal water. The carbonated water reacts with basaltic rocks which cover most of the ocean floor. The reaction releases elements like calcium, magnesium, and iron into the water stream. Over time, these elements combine with the dissolved CO2 to form stable carbonate minerals that permanently fill pores within the rock.

How does CO2 enter the storage sites?

The CO2 is injected into the porous rocks of depleted or unused natural gas or oil reserves, as well as saline aquifers – geologic strata, filled with brine or saline water. Porous rock is filled with holes and gaps between the grains that make up the rock. When CO2 is injected into these structures, the CO2 floods the pores, displacing the brine or remnants of oil and gas. It then spreads out and is trapped in the dome-like structures of the rock strata called anticlines.

How long can CO2 be stored?

Appropriately selected and maintained geological reservoirs are “very likely” to retain 99% of sequestered carbon for more than 100 years and are “likely” to retain 99% of sequestered carbon for more than 1,000 years, according to the 2005 Special Report on CCS by the IPCC. Another study by Nature found that more than 98% of injected CO2 will remain stored for over 10,000 years.

In natural carbon sinks, the length of time that carbon is stored varies and depends on environments being preserved. Peatland, for example, builds up over thousands of years storing carbon. However, as peatlands degrade from attempts to drain them to create arable land, as well as peat extraction for fuel, they begin to emit CO2. The lifecycle of a tree by contrast is relatively short before it decomposes and releases some CO2 back into the atmosphere.

The ability for geological storage to contain CO2 for millennia means it can truly remove and permanently store emissions.

Go deeper