Carbon capture crucial for net-zero ambitions

Industrial decarbonisation is a big, ten-syllable mouthful – and a huge challenge if Scotland wants to hit those net-zero targets by 2045.

Grangemouth Oil Refinery at night
Grangemouth Oil Refinery at night

Put simply, sites like Ineos at Grangemouth – the UK’s largest industrial emitter of CO2 – need a way of capturing emissions and storing them. And they need it fast.

That’s why so much effort was put into the Back the Scottish Cluster campaign to site a carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility at St Fergus, near Peterhead, Aberdeenshire (see page 22).

But despite confidence that the Acorn Project would be chosen in “track 1” for UK Government support, it didn’t make the cut. Instead, the two clusters prioritised were HyNet (north-west England and north Wales) and East Coast, based around Humber and Teesside.

Ronnie Quinn, chief executive of NECCUS, an alliance set up to help decarbonise industry, says members felt a mixture of “disbelief, confusion, frustration and outright anger” at the decision to exclude Scotland.

However, he believes CCS will ultimately succeed north of the Border: “It will happen – carbon capture and storage isn’t optional, it’s mission critical for Scotland meeting net-zero by 2045.”

Quinn, a former chief executive of Crown Estate Scotland who took up the NECCUS reins in July, says that being in track 1 would have been excellent, but track 2 – which appears possible – is still very good; he adds that track 2 projects could be operational by 2027 – very quick in terms of large-scale industrial projects.

“We cannot underestimate the impact this can have to allow us to transition in a just manner,” he says. “It means we keep industry working – switching off industry is not an option. We can keep jobs in those industries and create jobs as well. This is a no-regrets project.”

The CCS project would work by capturing CO2 emissions through processing on site and pumping them to St Fergus. There is an existing pipeline network to take natural gas from St Fergus to Grangemouth, which could be utilised to send CO2 north.

Overall, it is estimated that the group of UK clusters could create 50,000 jobs. But Professor Stuart Haszeldine, an expert in carbon capture and storage, warns of the possible impacts of Scotland missing out on track 1 support.

“All the clusters must all be operational as soon as possible, with the UK’s industrial regions moving forward together,” he says. “This is a pivotal time in the offshore hydrocarbon industry and the lack of a [CCS] project here makes it harder to transition workforces and communities.”

However, Quinn and Richard Cockburn, head of energy at legal firm Womble Bond Dickinson, are confident in the long-term prospects of the project.

“The failure to include Acorn in track 1 was a setback, but it’s a strong project and I’m sure it will have its day,” says Cockburn. “For industry to decarbonise, big manufacturing plants, chemical and steel plants need to find a way of capturing and storing their emissions very quickly, because the technology isn’t there yet for them to conduct their usual activities without the emissions. We also need that to happen if we’re going to manufacture hydrogen quickly at scale.”

Cockburn insists CCS is in a strong position. “There have been two or three previous attempts to get it off the ground, which have failed because the government baulked at the cost. But there’s an important change in public attitudes – a wider acceptance.

“There’s also strong business support. Most big oil and gas companies are involved in one or more of the projects because this is important to their transition to low-carbon activities.

“There is real momentum behind CCS – there’s finance waiting to commit to it and businesses waiting to connect into the carbon capture networks. It will happen.”

But while everyone waits for clarity on what happens next for Acorn, what else can industry do to accelerate decarbonisation?

“We’ve got to work through all the steps necessary to create a hydrogen market in Scotland,” says Quinn. “Blue hydrogen will have a significant part to play as the pathfinder. We need to get the market mechanisms right, so by the time green hydrogen comes along there’s something in play.”

By 2050, it’s thought that hydrogen could eliminate about one-tenth of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

While “green hydrogen” is the Holy Grail, blue hydrogen is an important transition technology that can be located alongside CCS facilities. This is Acorn’s plan. St Fergus is the first landing-point for a third of natural gas used in the UK and Acorn wants to re-form that gas into blue hydrogen, with CO2 emissions created from generating the hydrogen safely removed and stored using CCS.

Initially, Acorn wants to blend hydrogen with natural gas to pipe it into homes and businesses. It says replacing just 2 per cent of natural gas could cut about 400,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum.

Hydrogen is already being used as a low-carbon energy source for many applications, from buses in Aberdeen to heating homes. The H-100 Hydrogen to Homes heating project in Fife is seen as a testbed.

Cockburn says: “We’d like to go straight to green hydrogen, where you use hydrolysis and produce hydrogen without emissions, but we’re not there yet with the scaled-up technology, and we need to transition away from gas, so we start with blue hydrogen. We are then generating hydrogen which can be stored and brought out when we need more energy.

“There’s also a sense that hydrogen will be better suited to heavy transport such as HGVs or trains, and then electricity, because in relative terms you get much more power from a hydrogen fuel cell.”

Cockburn believes hydrogen will also be important in getting heavier-emitting industries off fossil fuels: “For the first time, a project in Sweden called Hybrit manufactured ‘green steel’ this summer, using hydrogen instead of coke.”

The clusters have raised the profile of hydrogen in the UK significantly, and Quinn says oil and gas industry skills will be very transferable. However, he also implores the government to “send the right market signals to allow private investment to move forward”. He adds: “Government has a role to play in creating that environment and Scotland is well-positioned to take advantage of it.”

However, there is a big issue of scale, both in Scotland and the wider world. A DNV Energy Transitions report in September projected that hydrogen will account for 5 per cent of the global energy mix by 2050 – but that a 20 per cent hydrogen mix will be needed to deliver net-zero targets and the 1.5C warming target. The report also forecasts that CCS will be capturing 1,300 metric tonnes of CO2 annually by 2050 – but needs to hit 5,000 tonnes.

“It’s tough,” says Quinn. “But in the past, Scotland, its people and its engineers have stepped up and led the way. I’m hoping and expecting Scotland to do the same now. This isn’t wholly altruistic, as the skills and leadership can be exported to the world.

“Our members are committed to doing this and we will put more focus on getting the supply chain engaged at an early stage. CCS technology is working elsewhere in the world; we just need to catch up, show leadership and do this at scale.

“Yes, of course it’s a huge challenge - if it was easy, we would have done it by now.”