Electrolysis may soon compete with CCS

Tom Baxter, senior lecturer in chemical engineering at Aberdeen University.
Tom Baxter, senior lecturer in chemical engineering at Aberdeen University.
Tom Baxter
Opinion by Tom Baxter

I read with interest Luke Warren’s (CEO Carbon Capture and Storage Association) article criticising my previous Energy Voice piece where it was stated ‘but Tom misses the essential point about the very nature of CCUS technology when he says we should “bypass CCUS” in order to decarbonise our economy and stimulate investment in hydrogen’.

On reviewing the CCSA response, I am not clear on what the essential point is that I am missing.

CCSA firstly said that ‘evidence suggests that reforming natural gas with CCUS is currently the best solution for producing large-scale, low-cost clean hydrogen’.

My article said the same by stating that the alternative to steam methane reforming (SMR) with CCS is water electrolysis but presently it is viewed as not cost competitive.

What I did contend was that electrolysis costs are dropping and may soon compete with SMR and CCS.

I await with interest the outcome of the Government’s Hydrogen Supply Programme initiative.

Should electrolysis be shown to be able to compete on cost, the basis for SMR with CCS becomes very difficult to support.

CCSA, followed with the criticism that my article ‘paints CCUS as a technology fix for the fossil fuel industry’.

I quoted the Greenpeace view that CCUS is a fossil fuel fix. I stated that ‘I wasn’t there’ but I could understand their position.

Hardly me painting CCUS as a fossil fuel fix!

What CCSA did not respond to was my position that the parasitic energy load associated with carbon capture, the inefficiencies associated with SMR and the increased CO2 and other emissions resulting from the supplier having to produce more hydrocarbons to feed the CCUS plant, is a major drawback.

When we should be driving down fossil fuel extraction, SMR with CCS will promote the opposite.

For CCSA to state that SMR with CCS produces ‘clean hydrogen’ is incorrect.

CCSA also stated my article is ‘extremely misleading’ as it fails to consider the economy wide benefits of CCUS’.

Why would hydrogen research and hydrogen electrolysis plant system design, manufacture and operation not equally have economic benefits to the UK?

Indeed, it could be argued that CCUS equipment will be manufactured elsewhere, whereas if we develop new, more cost effective hydrogen production technologies such as proton exchange membranes, the UK could be in a superior position to benefit economically.

CCSA mentioned steel and cement as CCUS candidates. Since my article was based upon the UK meeting its carbon targets, I found this very puzzling as the steel and cement industries contribute only 2% of the UK’s carbon emissions.

I do align with CCSA in promoting bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and stated so in a previous article.

However, for the CCSA to state this is the only way of providing negative emissions at scale is flawed. As reported by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), it is not the only way to achieve significant negative UK CO2 emissions – significant negative emissions can be achieved through revised land use.

I would also caution the CCSA on quoting the government’s support for CCUS – they have changed their mind before.

I agree that tackling climate change is a monumental challenge and that there are a range of tools we can use to do so – renewables, green hydrogen, energy efficiency, land use, BECCS and nuclear.

It is not surprising that the CCSA should defend CCUS as it is the reason they exist.

However, nothing that the CCSA has said in response to my article moves SMR with CCS from the bottom of my UK decarbonisation league table.

Tom Baxter, Senior Lecturer, Chemical Engineering, Aberdeen University