Experts remain optimistic about the Acorn Project despite losing out on funding

Alan James, director of Storegga, tells David Lee why he remains optimistic about carbon capture and storage despite the Scottish Cluster having missed out on UK Government track 1 funding.

St Fergus Gas Terminal/Refinery, North of Peterhead, Scotland
St Fergus Gas Terminal/Refinery, North of Peterhead, Scotland

The Scottish Cluster is led by a cross-sector group of Scottish industrial carbon dioxide emitters and the Acorn CCS and Hydrogen Project partners – Storegga, Shell UK and Harbour Energy. It brings together stakeholders from across Scotland, spanning a wide range of key industries.

The Cluster is a unified voice, calling upon the Scottish and UK governments to take more drastic action against climate change, partly through the recognition of the need for carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen and other low-carbon technologies.

How have you brought together emitters to form the Cluster?

The Scottish Cluster was initially formed by the Acorn CCS and Hydrogen Project partners; Storegga, Shell and Harbour Energy. Since its formation, it has attracted some of Scotland’s largest CO2 emitters, from a large range of sectors, including whisky, transport, technology, infrastructure, chemicals, energy, real estate, manufacturing, and academia. Members include, INEOS, SSE Thermal, Carbon Engineering, EZT, NECCUS, Virgin Atlantic and Forth Ports Scotland.

Why is the Scottish Cluster so important for Scotland, its environment, and its economy?

The Scottish Cluster is central to rapidly establishing a world-leading CCS industry in the UK and meeting the UK Government’s 2050 net zero emissions target. It can reliably unlock access to one of the UK’s most important and well understood CO2 storage resources of more than 600 tonnes through a transport and storage network, comprising multiple pipelines and stores to provide unrivalled resilience.

Scotland has key infrastructure in place to enable development, with the potential to address up to nine million tonnes of CO2 that currently comes from the country’s top emitting sectors. The Cluster delivers strategic investment in Scotland and around the UK.

How does the Scottish Cluster create jobs in Scotland, and how many will there be if it is successful?

The Cluster will support an average of 15,000 jobs each year to 2050 and deliver £1.4 billion annually in added economic value, driving sustainable economic growth through a considered programme of learning and innovation to harness the greatest benefits for the UK economy. Total Scottish Cluster jobs are expected to peak at 20,600 in 2031, and the project build phase – 2022-36 – will account for more than 60 per cent of the total jobs supported.

Why do you think you did not achieve track 1 funding from the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)?

We were disappointed with the outcome of the BEIS Cluster sequencing bid, but recognise that the sequencing programme was successful and galvanised the Cluster formation for Scotland and other clusters in the UK.

We remain convinced of the potential and advantages of the Scottish Cluster and are committed to the development of CCS to support decarbonisation of UK industry.

What is next – what actions can be pushed on quickly ahead of more clarity on track 2?

Despite not receiving funding in this initial allocation, we will continue to work closely with our partners and representatives of the government to build towards future funding opportunities.

This was an important goal for the Cluster, but despite not being successful at this time, the Acorn Project that is at the heart of the Scottish Cluster will continue to be developed through funding from our investors.

How does CCS and direct air capture (DAC) enable the energy transition, as some argue that it is merely an agent of “Big Oil”? DAC is much less talked-about – how important is it?

It is important to note that Acorn will only ever be looking at permanent underground storage of CO2, not CCS for any form of enhanced oil or gas recovery.

CCS is a vital solution to deliver net-zero, due to its ability to significantly reduce emissions across the economy. Further to that, the Climate Change Committee’s 2019 Net-Zero report states: “Given its strategic importance in achieving deep decarbonisation, CCS is a necessity for a net-zero target.”

DAC technology, when combined with secure geological storage, delivers the permanent and verifiable removal of carbon dioxide from the air, reversing the emissions process. For sectors of the economy that are currently finding it challenging to decarbonise directly, such as aviation, shipping, and oil and gas, this form of greenhouse gas removal provides an effective way to address their carbon footprint and achieve net-zero targets. It also delivers a mechanism to eliminate emissions from the past, providing a tool to achieve full climate restoration.

There are some companies, including some big tech firms, who are looking to eliminate their corporate emissions back to the day they incorporated, so they can be a true net-zero business.

Does Scotland have the workforce to deliver projects like the Acorn Project? Will that workforce include people transitioning from oil and gas?

Absolutely. The project is based in the heart of the UK’s oil and gas industry, at St Fergus near Peterhead. Acorn has the existing workforce, offshore pipelines and well-understood CO2 storage sites, providing a fast and cost-efficient way of establishing this essential net-zero infrastructure.

The cluster will support an average of 15,000 jobs each year to 2050 and £1.4bn a year in added economic value and will help to ensure that industry has a long-term future across both Scotland and the rest of the UK by enabling key parts of the economy to decarbonise.

Can CCS technology be a great Scottish export?

CCS has gone from being considered a marginal player to centre stage as a net-zero requirement. For investors this offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, given the significant infrastructure and technology opportunities required.

Storegga is an example of what is to come, as we are currently the only independent CCS player in the sector. Allied to that, we are seeing strong carbon pricing and favourable government policy in certain geographies which means investors can make returns from CCS while also helping the planet reach net-zero.

At the moment, there are limited opportunities to invest directly on a pure play basis into the carbon management chain. It is reasonable to expect that such investment opportunities will proliferate.

What is the link between CCS and hydrogen – and does the growth and success of each depend on the other?

Both blue and green hydrogen are crucial for the energy transition. Green hydrogen, derived from electrolysing water using renewable power, is the panacea. Blue hydrogen, generated from natural gas, which can store harmful CO2, is available now, at scale and cheaply.

History shows that it takes several decades to transition from one fuel to another. It is unrealistic to expect that we can switch everything to green hydrogen today. It is pragmatic to switch on blue hydrogen quickly to encourage users to adopt hydrogen, then phase in green hydrogen when it is ready at scale and cheaper than it currently is.

At Storegga, we believe in both green and blue hydrogen and we are involved in both. Blue hydrogen is highly relevant to CCS, and the Acorn Project specifically, as we have the storage facilities at scale. Green hydrogen will be used in two ways. Initially it will be used on a 100 per cent basis for local customers in industries such as transport. Following on from that I believe it will be blended with the hydrogen that serves our homes, thereby reducing the intensity with which we use carbon today.