UK reignites plans for carbon capture and storage

As the government warms to CCUS for clean growth, clear policy direction is needed to support innovation and investment in this vital technology, writes Jeremy Bowden.

CCUS Getty Images

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is back on the government’s agenda as part of its Clean Growth Strategy – just two years after a competition to build the UK’s first commercial-scale CCS plant was cancelled. The decision came after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), National Audit Office and others reported on how much cheaper using CCS would be than simply relying on renewable power to meet the UK’s 2050 emissions reduction target. The CCC now says it could almost halve the cost, and the Energy Technology Institute estimates use of CCS could add 1% per year to GDP.

The National Grid has also recently called for CCS to be developed, because it claims electrification of heating (to cut emissions) is far too expensive. In its report, The Future of Gas: How Gas Can Support a Low Carbon Future, released in March 2018, it said filling the gap required to meet peak heating demand during the winter with electricity (instead of the natural gas currently used) would require a seven-fold increase in generation capacity, with peak demand rising from less than 60GW up to 350GW.

It is impossible to collect the emissions from millions of domestic gas boilers, so the National Grid and others propose converting the natural gas to hydrogen at central locations and piping that into people’s houses as heating fuel. The waste CO2 could be collected from these conversion plants and piped to storage.

CCUS enables gas to have a long-term future in a low-carbon economy

Dr Luke Warren, Chief Executive of the Carbon Capture Storage Association, said ‘The UK relies on gas to heat homes, and to support industry. By removing emissions, CCUS enables gas to have a long-term future in a low carbon economy. This will provide value to consumers against more costly alternatives… industry and government must now work together to deliver a CCUS deployment pathway that enables the UK to benefit from this critical technology.’

The report also says the first carbon capture and storage projects need to be up and running by the 2020s to ensure that the technology can be deployed at scale in the following decade. Organisations such as the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, where major oil and gas companies are working together on CCS and other low-carbon technologies, should help this process, provided the government can provide a clear plan and incentives.

Putting the ‘U’ back into CCUS

Utilisation can help CCS project economics by attaching a value to the CO2. Currently, the vast majority of utilisation is in enhanced oil and gas recovery applications. There are many other potential uses, but so far most of these are not yet fully commercial, and CO2 quantities required are small. In the US and elsewhere there are projects ranging from the use of flue gas from aluminium smelters and cement plants to make carbonates, to plastics and algal biofuels from coal-fired or chemical plant sources, with other technologies being tested.

Among emission reduction options, there is little doubt that CCS makes economic sense on paper, even without utilisation. If it were to be excluded as a green option in the electricity sector globally, the International Energy Agency says green investment costs to 2050 would increase by 40%. What’s more, CCUS is the only known way of dealing with emissions from unavoidable sources such as steel and cement production – making it an essential element in the energy transition.