Carbon dioxide is the big villain of global warming. The “most wanted” for crimes against the climate that we’d love to lock up.
In Merseyside and North Wales, they’re putting a posse together.
It’s called HyNet and it’s a group of around 40 carbon-intensive industries like glass and cement, even breakfast cereals, crisps and proposed new green hydrogen production, brought together as a Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) cluster.
This area of the North West is an industrial powerhouse but that means it’s a hotspot for emissions. In overview, the plan is to capture the CO2 from the various chimneys, before it’s piped to empty old gas wells.
These are all industries which allow us to live our life every day today, so this region’s got the biggest concentrations of industrial emissions. We’ve also got really important geology for being able to store carbon emissions deep under the sea.
One company saddling up for the challenge is waste and recycling company Viridor, which runs a big rubbish incinerator that makes electricity. Their proposed new carbon capture facility will have specially built chimneys which force the gasses to flow through an amine solvent to separate the CO2.
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That amine is heated to release the pure CO2 before it joins a pipe network from other industries to be pumped into depleted gas wells in Liverpool Bay. It will be very big and expensive but James Eyton, Viridor’s head of Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage Developments, commits to have it up and running by the mid-2020s.
“The reason I got into engineering was to make a positive difference to the world, to help solve climate change. We are talking about spending about half a billion pounds on a new site about the same size again as the energy recovery facility itself. It’s massive. It’s a huge challenge. It will take a lot of people working very hard together to make it happen.”
It will be energy hungry too: the CCS plant will demand about one-third of the energy produced by burning the waste in the first place. Effective CCS across the world would be a massive business, comparable to the oil and gas industry itself.
This epic size and cost is one reason why CCS hasn’t yet happened at scale despite being talked about by polluting companies for decades.
Many observers believe polluters have been using the prospect of CCS to avoid taking the hard choice of moving away from dirty fuels. But it’s now central to the government’s legally binding commitment to reach net zero by 2050 and they’ve committed £20bn for the technology over the next two years.
‘We’re in a net zero world’
HyNet’s progressive director, David Parkin, says that in Britain, CCS is about to be real.
“It will definitely happen this time. The legislative backdrop has changed. We’re in a net zero world,” he said.
“The government’s really serious and, although we had some delays last year because of political instability, we’re right back on track – and after a really good announcement with the spring statement from the chancellor, this project will move forward.”
A little further west, across into Wales, lies the Padeswood Works cement plant. Globally, cement manufacturing accounts for around 5% of global warming. It’s not just the massive heat required but the actual chemical reaction to make calcium oxide that emits CO2.
Here too they are promising hundreds of millions of investments to capture hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2, but when I ask Hanson UK’s sustainability manager, Marian Garfield, if the works will be climate-friendly, she said: “I will be happy to invite you back in 2027-28 when our carbon capture facility will be operating and we’ll be capturing 100% of our emissions.”
If, in a decade or two, CCS becomes widespread, a huge bill will be paid by us. It will make goods produced by burning stuff more expensive.
While hard to swallow for consumers or governments, that high price will be the real cost of cleaning up fossil fuels (which are still responsible for around three-quarters of our total energy demand).
It also makes the use of renewable energy in manufacturing more attractive by comparison. The independent Climate Change Committee, which holds the government to account on climate, states some CCS will be essential in meeting our net zero goals but also urges moving away from using high carbon fuels where possible.
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Viridor’s James Eyton, standing beside a chimney where much of Merseyside’s rubbish goes up in smoke, says he agrees.
“I would love not to have to burn rubbish but it’s a fact we create rubbish every day. We can’t recycle everything so we still need to manage waste. So as we are still going to have that industry, we need to decarbonise it.”