Norway’s Northern Lights carbon capture project took a major step forward recently when various partners signed memoranda of understanding with seven European companies to develop value chains in CCS.
Equinor, Shell and Total are reviving Norwegian interest in developing comprehensive CCS on the Norwegian continental shelf where there is already a track record reaching back to the 90s, starting with the Sleipner gas field development.
Northern Lights would include transport, reception and permanent storage of CO2 in a reservoir in the northern part of the North Sea.
Norway considers CCS vital to reach the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and Equinor hopes to make an investment decision on the project next year.
Meanwhile, a consortium of 11 European stakeholders including ArcelorMittal, Axens, IFP Energies nouvelles (IFPEN), and Total, has launched a project to demonstrate an innovative process for capturing CO2 from industrial activities.
The so-called DMX project is part of a more comprehensive study dedicated to the development of the European Dunkirk North Sea CCS cluster, which should be operational by 2035 and capable of capturing and storing 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
Commercial-scale pilots such as Dunkirk are vital to making CCS more competitive, supporting the growth of low-carbon industry.
CCS is a proven technology and has been commercial for at least 40 years. Indeed, the Carbon Capture Institute recently indicated that there are 18 large-scale CCS facilities in operation today –primarily oil and gas-related in the US – with five under construction and 20 early stage.
A LOW CARBON LEADING LIGHT
This is the world of combustion specialist Nils Rokke whose career kicked off in the 90s with the North Sea “dash for gas”.
“It was about replacing coal with gas,” he said. “That was the narrative in Norway at the time.
“I thought I would do my PhD in something around the environmental impacts of natural gas usage. At that time the focus was on reducing nitrogen oxide emissions, soots and burnt hydrocarbons.
“For my PhD I developed a model to estimate emissions from large-scale flaring in the North Sea.
“And then I moved on to Rolls-Royce as a gas turbine design manager working on getting turbine emissions down as low as possible.
“When I left Rolls-Royce people said Rokke was going to do ‘silly cycles’. Those were the carbon capture and storage cycles.
“It turns out that silly cycles are not silly at all. They’re crucial to the curbing of emissions and to staying within the global warming targets that have been set.”
Today, Rokke is vice-president of sustainability at state-funded Sintef, which ranks as Scandinavia’s largest R&D Institute. He is also the coordinator of several large European CCS projects and is chair of the European Energy Research Alliance (Eera).
Sintef is the lead in an initiative simply known as NCCS, which is an international capture cooperation co-financed by the Research Council of Norway, industry and research partners.
Rokke is deeply immersed in CCS and believes it is critical to mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. As global temperatures rise, the urgency for large-scale carbon capture and usage grows.
He warns emissions need to be reduced across industrial sectors, in particular cement and steel. Both are prominent in terms of global emissions. In some countries they account for 9-10% of CO2 emissions.
And now there is a growing urgency to harness hydrogen, which is certainly gaining traction among EU policymakers, as demonstrated by the Hydrogen Initiative Declaration signed just over a year ago in Austria by 25 EU member nations.
Most of today’s discussion is focused on hydrogen produced from renewables-powered electrolysers – so-called “green hydrogen”.
However, as Rokke points out, this overlooks the way we can decarbonise the world’s largest source of hydrogen – steam reformed natural gas – with integrated carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS).
He believes that such a technological combination would allow industrial-scale volumes of carbon-neutral hydrogen, or “blue hydrogen”, to be produced, laying the foundations for a future European hydrogen economy.
Rokke said: “You need CCS to enable the delivery of hydrogen in massive amounts to decarbonise industries, transport, power generation and heat.
“That means attention must be paid to transport and storage because there are no large-scale reception facilities in Europe.
“That’s the importance of the Norwegian full-scale project, as it will be open access.
This would facilitate the emergence of several value chains.”
As for continued production of hydrocarbons from the North Sea, the potential value of CCS could be enormous. Sleipner and Snohvit in Norway are living examples of CCS in operation.
But Rokke doesn’t necessarily think Norway has a stronger, more sustained commitment to a low carbon future than the UK.
“I’m really impatient about what Norway’s going to do to reduce emissions,” he said.
“The EU has since 1990 reduced emissions by 22%. In Norway, emissions have increased since 1990.
“Norway has built its economy based on the export of CO2 through oil and gas. There is a moral obligation to ensure that we get back on the right track.”
Oil and gas are viewed increasingly as pariah resources, which is bad news for North Sea producers.
Rokke said: “If fossil fuels are to be a part of the mix, you need to be able to take out the CO2 and store it.
“If we can use hydrogen extracted from natural gas, that would provide a sustainable way of decarbonising the European economy.
“If you replace all natural gas used in Europe today with hydrogen, you would reduce CO2 emissions by about 800m tonnes per year and that’s a powerful tool for decarbonising.
“I have an office in Brussels where it seems the thinking is gaining more momentum. But the targets set cannot be achieved without CO2 storage.”
This will be a cornerstone of Rokke’s general assembly address at the NCCS Consortium Days gathering later this month
“We now see an urgent need for CO2 transportation and storage in Europe,” he said.
“It’s really important that the value chain is anchored so we can really step up efforts to decarbonise, not just through CCS from power generation but also from hydrogen and so-called negative emissions technologies (NETS), though I prefer to call them ‘climate positive’ solutions.
“We need such technology to reach our Paris Agreement targets. The key is in the hydrogen narrative, in my view.”
But everyone is moving at a different pace, including in the EU. According to Rokke, the UK, Netherlands and Sweden cannot do zero carbon by 2045 without CCS.
Finland is talking about climate neutrality by 2030 and Denmark is discussing emissions reductions with a new government in power.
Whether a country has an extensive gas grid or not, very few host oil and gas production, so establishing a credible CCS capability will take many years.
Rokke is positive about the UK’s position on the low-carbon ladder, suggesting it’s in a better place than critics might realise, with projects like H21 Hydrogen North of England and the HyNet North West project, both of which are focused on decarbonised hydrogen.
Between 30-40% of UK emissions relate to heat.
The challenges faced across the EU vary greatly. Eastern Europe has traditionally relied on coal-fired power plants with district heating.
“Heat is really a key item and hard to decarbonise,” Rokke said. “It has to be undertaken by different means in different European countries because you cannot talk about a common Euro-energy system. It’s so different going from country to country.
“Finland is nuclear and biomass, Czech Republic is nuclear and coal, UK is gas, some coal, some nuclear and with renewables coming up.
“If you look at Europe, where the carbon quota price is now around 30 euros, we’re moving in the right direction, though the EU commissioner for energy has said that a quota price of about 350 euros is what is really needed, which I think is a no-go, especially if you talk about it in terms of transition.”
Rokke is a carbon trading sceptic: “I don’t think it’s very efficient. Paper shifting doesn’t really work. We need to reduce the level of emissions in real terms.
“In the 1970s global emissions were around 12-13 gigatonnes and now we’re up to around 50 gigatonnes.
“However, the direction of travel is clear. It’s going to become more expensive to emit. I think the world will go on the same kind of path we’re seeing now in Europe, which has a very developed economy with renewables, CCS and hydrogen.”
The rate at which the rest of the world gets to grips with the transition poses a huge challenge.
Rokke said: “In Asia, there are a lot of new coal-based power plants, with more to come. It is going to take more time to accomplish the energy transition there. I think CCS linked to power generation will be essential. They also need it for reducing industrial emissions.
“Maybe we’ll see the emergence of hybrid systems with renewables working alongside fossil-fuel fitted with CCS.”
CULTIVATING THE VISION
Rokke clearly has a passion for carbon capture but is also aware of the need for impartiality in his role as chair of the European Energy Research Alliance, because there is a menu of low carbon options on the table, of which CCS is one of 17.
“I must be neutral and not say that CCS is going to make all the other approaches obsolete,” he said. “But it is important. At the NCCS we have to make CCS a reality.
“I’m really excited to see the new narrative with hydrogen, in which I have great faith.
This will be so important in terms of jobs and changing of the whole structure of the energy system in Europe.
“All the models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show you need a mix of technologies to get to near zero emissions.
“This includes NETS technologies like bio-carbon and direct air capture. In the case of bio-carbon, instead of storing CO2, one would store solid carbon instead.”
The IPCC puts carbon removal technologies in most of its scenarios. We need an innovation agenda for that but the clock is ticking. Time to turn around the global climate crisis is running out.
Much is made of 2050 as the zero emissions target year but even 2030 may be too late to turn the global warming tide of destruction.
So how does Rokke square that circle, in policy terms and developing CCS technologies?
“It’s really scary,” he said. “It’s happening faster than anyone either thought or perhaps dared to say before. The basic problem really comes back to the economic model that we have, namely growth.
“That must not stop us doing our best. It really comes back to how we can live in a society that has significantly lower emissions and still be happy.”
So how does Rokke manage to remain optimistic?
He said: “I’m optimistic in terms of what technology can provide. Many of the solutions we need are already here. But we should not think this is going to be fixed by technology alone.
“There will have to be lifestyle changes. We need to merchandise ideas about achieving a zero emissions society without it involving a huge change to the well-being of humans.
“I live in Brussels. Just think how good life would be if there were no cars on the roads here? It’s a tremendous city. But mobility is something people think about very strongly. You can’t take it away. Mobility as a service is different from owning a car, even if it is propelled by different energy sources.
“This is an area where Norway’s been particularly active with electric vehicles. Ten percent of the Norwegian car stock is electric because we need to reduce emissions in sectors like transport and industry.
“But you need a consistent policy for this to succeed. We have this long-term political agreement in Norway whereby electric cars should not be taxed.
“This goes back to 1991 when it was said that zero emissions cars should be lightly regulated. The Norwegian parliament has stayed true to that. That’s why 50% of our new car sales are electric.”
Consistency of vision has been a hallmark of Norway’s energy industry for decades.
Though there have been significant challenges along the way since the push into carbon capture began in the 1990s with Sleipner, there is the same clarity and long-term thinking about CCS.
Rokke clearly hopes this spreads worldwide.