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Carbon capture is key to net zero. Here’s how we can achieve it

Observers agree we need to avoid releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere if we are to hit climate targets. Energy company Eni is working on how to achieve this in practice.

A carbon capture and storage (CCS) scheme in the North West of England and North Wales could serve as a blueprint for expanding the process across the country, according to experts. HyNet North West will not only curb 10m tonnes of CO2 emissions a year by the early 2030s, contributing substantially to one of the 10 "green industrial revolution"[1] goals unveiled by government last year, but also employ a carbon-hydrogen hub model that can be replicated nationally, says Philip Hemmens, Head of Northern Europe Management at Eni, a partner in the project.

CCS works by removing emissions from industrial processes so that the carbon cannot contribute to global warming. Authorities including the Paris-based International Energy Agency believe CCS will be critical in achieving global climate goals. Although CCS is the least expensive and most efficient process to decarbonise hard-to-abate industries, it faces a major hurdle: the cost of deploying it is more than what developers can earn from today’s carbon markets. HyNet’s backers may have solved that issue with the creation of an industrial cluster that combines CCS with hydrogen production, as well as using CCS to directly capture and store CO2 from the industries in the area. 

Hydrogen is being considered as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in many industrial processes. While traditional hydrogen production produces large quantities of CO2, adding CCS to the process creates a low-carbon or ‘blue’ version of the gas. Centred initially around the Stanlow and Ince area of Cheshire, then expanding to wider areas of the North West of England and North Wales are a group of around 30 large carbon emitters keen to switch to blue hydrogen as a low-carbon fuel, says Hemmens. This means the capital cost of the CCS infrastructure can be shared across multiple customers. 

The location is also close to depleted Eni-owned and -operated gas and oil fields that the Oil and Gas Authority has listed in their top potential carbon storage locations in the country. Having a suitable storage site nearby, and repurposing existing infrastructure helps keep pipeline costs to a minimum. Hemmens says demand for CCS had increased as more companies joined the HyNet cluster. “We started with 800,000 tonnes per year; already, we have MoU [memorandum of understanding] pledges taking us past 6m tonnes per year.” 

Hynet is aiming to be the lowest unit cost per tonne CCS project in the UK, thanks to its advantageous cost structure, which benefits from reutilisation and repurposing of existing Liverpool Bay upstream infrastructure. This could allow Hynet to potentially be the first CCS project up and running – as early as 2025.

The use of CCS, both in combination with blue hydrogen production and to directly capture emissions from industrial activities was "an obvious thing to do in the North West of England and North Wales,” says Hemmens. “We had the right geology within 30km of industry.”

In June this year, the HyNet consortium began a consultation process on potential pipeline routes from Ellesmere Port’s Stanlow refinery, which is slated to become a hydrogen production centre, to Flint on the River Dee in Wales. There, it will connect to an existing pipeline that runs to the Point of Ayr gas terminal at the mouth of the Dee Estuary. Once operational, the model can be extended to nearby locations and applied elsewhere. It could also become more cost-effective, as learnings amassed at HyNet are used at other sites. “Industry tends to be clustered, as well,” says Hemmens, citing Scotland and the North East as other potential sites for carbon-hydrogen hubs. 

For regions such as the southern counties of Wales, which are far from any suitable storage sites, clusters might be viable once a hypothetical carbon shipping industry emerges. In June 2021, the analyst group Wood Mackenzie called for “basin-wide” CCS deployment to meet climate targets. “Wood Mackenzie believes CCS clusters can play a pivotal role in harnessing economies of scale,” said the company in a press release. “Synergies are greatest where industrial point sources are near each other and a viable storage site.”

David Linden, Head of Energy Transition at Westwood Global Energy Group, an analyst firm focused on oil and gas, believes Eni is a natural partner for the HyNet project. “Oil and gas companies have the right skill set, know-how and general capability to do this,” he says. 

Furthermore, experience gained at HyNet could help Britain lead moves to deploy CCS in other markets. “Getting in early, learning how to scale it, and then owning it is going to be quite important,” says Linden. “Getting understanding and knowledge, and implementing the CCS side of things, is about kickstarting the blue hydrogen economy.”

It is through these kinds of collaborative pushes, in this case a pooling of both resources and knowledge, that we may yet see industries traditionally reliant on fossil fuels reaching their climate targets – together.

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