In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the UK Government's recently renewed commitment to the transition to a "low-carbon" energy economy, through investment in new nuclear power plants and in carbon dioxide capture, usage and storage (CCUS). In particular we looked at the research and develoment investment in future Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs). We noted that the UK-SMR Consortium was close to producing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and considered the scale of the production required.
In light of this, we scrutinised the government target of reducing industrial emissions "by at least two-thirds by 2035". It was apparent that achieving this through the proposed nuclear programmes was extremely unlikely. Carbon capture, usage and storage seems to be the key to reaching this "sustainable development" objective.
We will now explore this bizarre world of carbon dioxide capture, carbon dioxide storage, and so-called "sustainable" energy. This necessarily includes an examination of the many claims about the "low-carbon" nature of biomass and hydrogen processing. Again, when we take the time to look beyond the fluffy rhetoric of "sustainable development", deception is conspicuous.
Narrowing the Pathway
With its 2017 Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) the UK Government committed to carbon dioxide capture, usage and storage (CCUS). The CGS reported:
The UK is committed to working with other countries to achieve global net zero emissions in the second half of the century.
We need to pause here to consider the language we are encouraged to use. All animals, plants and fungi on Earth are carbon-based lifeforms. CO2 is not "carbon", which is an element, but it is what we carbon-based animal lifeforms exhale. It is also a gas essential to all plant and fungal life.
As pointed out by Professor Dr. Richard Lindzen (among other "climate scientists"), as regards either "carbon" or CO2, if it were reduced in the life cycle to that fashionable word "zero", there wouldn't be any life. If we entertain the idea that "carbon", or CO2, should be reduced to zero, be it only subconsciously, we are contemplating the end of life on this planet. This may be abstract, but we shouldn't ignore the apparent anti-life framing of the "net zero" argument either.
The CGS laid out three primary pathways to construct a "low carbon" society by 2050, on the road towards "achieving global net zero emissions in the second half of the century”. The Electricity Pathway envisaged the UK switching to nothing but electricity from "renewables and nuclear", which would mean practically doubling British electricity generation; the Hydrogen Pathway replaces fossil fuels with hydrogen generated from natural gas plants using CCUS (so-called Blue Hydrogen); and the Emissions Removal Pathway relies on generating power using "renewable" biomass plants, in tandem with CCUS.
With the 2021 "Build Back Greener" Net Zero Strategy, the UK Government has now practically dispensed with the Electricity Pathway. It presumably recognised that renewable sources of energy cannot possibly meet modern demand and that the country is not going to produce the 600 or more SMRs (or equivalent) needed to double electricity generation in the absence of fossil fuels. It now seems to have focused upon the Hydrogen and Emission Removal pathways—both of which rely heavily upon CCUS.
The Government claims that, by 2030, it will actively "remove" 20 to 30 MtCO2 [million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide] emissions per year, using CCUS:
Carbon capture[,] usage and storage (CCUS) can capture CO2 from power generation, hydrogen production, and industrial processes—storing it underground or using it. This technology also supports negative emissions from engineered greenhouse gas removals—bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS).
Biomass combined with CCUS can remove carbon from the atmosphere and support low carbon electricity and hydrogen generation. Biomass and other wastes can also support low carbon fuels for industry, buildings, and transport.
The idea being suggested in this Net Zero Strategy paper is that the roll-out of "low-carbon" energy solutions—like renewables, nuclear, hydrogen and biomass—will incrementally reduce the emissions from burning fossil fuels. With the exception of nuclear, there is significant reason to question whether renewables, hydrogen and biomass will "reduce" emissions at all. More on this shortly.
Nuclear energy, maximising the use of recycled uranium, appears to be the only viable option to achieve any meaningful reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. But the UK can't currently undertake this process without assistance from Russia, and has yet to begin construction of the factories to make the necessary "modular" SMRs.
As the UK Government has committed to reducing emissions by "at least two-thirds by 2035", it must have some kind of energy transition magic in mind. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as magic. Illusion is achieved by sleight of hand.
Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage Magic
The Government's stated "net zero" energy commitments appear to rely heavily upon carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) by means of two modish processes: Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS). But these don't make much sense either.
According to Drax Group Ltd, Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS or DACS) is "a technology that removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than it releases”. Drax adds the caveat that this assumes the technology itself is "powered by green electricity".
Drax also explains what the associated DACCS technology actually is:
DACS systems use electricity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere using fans and filters. Air is drawn into the DACS system using an industrial-scale fan.
The CO2 is then extracted either by passing through a chemical solution or via solid filters coated with chemical agents.
Once this process is complete,
[t]he captured CO2 can then be compressed under very high pressure and pumped via pipelines into deep geological formations. This permanent storage process is known as ‘sequestration’.
Obviously, this is a very energy-intensive process—and, as just mentioned, the working assumption is that it is all "powered by green electricity". If it isn't, then the emission cost of CCUS also needs to be accounted for.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) was created by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1974 in response to the 1973 oil crisis. The IEA has been criticised by some, such as the international parliamentary group EnergyWatch, for holding back the global energy transition due to its alleged bias towards fossil fuel and nuclear power.
Nonetheless, the IEA supports the sustainable development of energy and backs the UN push towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7:
Energy accounts for two-thirds of total greenhouse gas, so the energy sector is the central player in efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. [. . .] Power generation and transport together accounted for over two thirds of total emissions in 2019 and have been responsible for almost all global growth [in emissions] since 2010.
The IEA notes that there are eighteen DACCS plants in the world. They currently each "remove" 0.01 Mt CO2/year for CCUS. This is 19.82 million metric tonnes short of even just the UK's 2030 target, never mind a global target—and it is the UK's lower-end target at that. Nor is it clear that the existing plants actually "remove" this amount.
With its proposed Storegga DACCS plant, the UK Government says it will capture 1 Mt CO2/year. Although it has stated its intention to be a world leader in CCUS, it initially appears that the Government will need at least twenty of these plants to be online within the next seven years—assuming it aims to achieve the lower end of its target using DACCS alone. So far, it hasn't built any.
We should note that the Government does not suggest that DACCS is the only alleged CCUS solution it will use. Nevertheless, for our illustrative calculation purposes, we'll look at the problem as if that were the case.
The Storegga plant is based upon the design of the Canadian firm Carbon Engineering (CE). Turbines suck in air and the 0.04% CO2 content is then bonded to chemically reactive sorbents. The sorbents are then heated to around 100ºC and the CO2 is captured, pressurised and pumped either to local storage containers or directly to underground geographical carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities.
Storegga says the DACCS plant will help to remove the emissions of "high-emitting, difficult-to-decarbonise industrial sectors, such as aviation, shipping, agriculture, and oil and gas”. We have already discussed why it is difficult to decarbonise these industries by means of renewable energy. Therefore, additional energy—which will have to be generated on top of existing demand—from some other energy-dense source will be required to drive the turbines, heat the sorbents and power the high pressure pumps for however many DACCS plants are required.
The Australian statisticians at Keynumbers reported that, in 2020, the world gleaned 462 exajoules (EJ) of energy from fossil fuels. This produced 32 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
In order to remove that amount from the atmosphere using DACCS, Keynumbers calculated the world would need to generate an additional 448 EJ. Complete DACCS carbon "sequestration" would, according to Keynumbers, necessitate a near-doubling of global energy generation from fossil fuels.
However, Storegga's CE designed plant is supposedly more efficient than the plants referenced in Keynumbers' calculations. Only an additional 284 EJ would be needed with the CE design: a mere 61% increase on global fossil fuel energy production. Given the IEA’s observations, carbon capture and storage on such a scale would significantly increase global greenhouse gas emissions. These can then be removed using DACCS.
The CE design selected by the UK Government relies upon a good supply of natural gas or electricity, or a combination of both. This presents a bit of a cost issue if the energy price rises. As CE mentioned in its 2018 design specification:
The baseline plant configuration [. . .] is applicable to geologic storage in locations with comparatively low natural gas prices.
Storegga claims it will "develop new, ultra-low-carbon energy sources to power the DAC technology". Storegga’s assessment of its CO2 "removal" potential seemingly excludes the emissions from DACCS system itself. Current renewable energy technology won't cut the "ultra-low carbon" mustard, so presumably Storegga will be powering its DACCS plant using nuclear energy and not natural gas.
As we discussed in Part 1, the UK is some distance away from switching on the nuclear power plants it will need for its net-zero sustainable development transition. Once again, we have to wonder how the UK Government is going to "remove" 20-30 MtCO2/year by 2030, because it hasn't started building the DACCS plants it would need to do this either.
Given current technology, the energy cost of DACCS will, absent some great technological leap forward, mean that the CE designed Storegga plants will only "remove" 0.4 Mt CO2/year, not the advertised 1 Mt CO2/year. While Storegga promises to use "ultra-low-carbon energy sources", these don't currently exist in any practical sense.
If the UK Government were to rely upon DACCS alone (which it is not doing), it would need to construct somewhere between 50 and 75 such "sequestration" plants by 2030. This is all assuming that it genuinely intends to remove 20–30 Mt CO2/year.
Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage Magic
The CO2 "sequestration" value of DACCS is marginal, due to its energy consumption. It's also expensive, not least of all due to rising energy costs and the massive subsidies entailed by "sustainable development". Furthermore, construction of the standalone DACCS plants hasn't so much as begun. Perhaps, then, the UK Government will be removing the bulk of the targeted 20–30 MtCO2/year by 2030 using BECCS.
Drax has converted Selby Power Station in North Yorkshire to burn wood pellets instead of coal. The UK Government has given Drax about £6 billion in subsidies to date, and Drax will have received £11 billion of taxpayers' money by 2027, when the current round of subsidy payments is set to end.
The UK Government puts the Drax BECCS plant at the heart of its sustainable development efforts. Consequently, Drax stands to benefit, according to some estimates, from nearly £32 billion of subsidies over the longer term.
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is the most scalable negative emissions technology available today to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We are trialling BECCS at Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire.
With regard to alleged "negative emissions," Drax adds:
Implemented at scale, what’s also known as Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) could mean a country or facility removing more CO2 than it emits—effectively giving it negative emissions.
The UK Government is also eager to highlight BECCS' ability to deliver so-called "negative emissions":
Technological changes mean that biomass usage can now go beyond carbon-neutral and deliver negative emissions by combining it with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
Drax suggests a number of ways by which "negative emissions" could be achieved, from planting trees, through injecting iron into the oceans and encouraging phytoplankton blooms, to pulverising rocks to encourage "weathering". Certainly, if reducing CO2 actually matters, which is a debatable proposition, these suggested "solutions" might help.
For example, a global reforestation project could potentially "remove" 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool. Yet, as we shall soon see, deforestation rather than reforestation is underway.
Drax' BECCS plant takes the CO2 emissions from the Selby power station, which burns allegedly "low-carbon" biofuel, and then pumps it into an absorption tower where, effectively, the DACCS process removes 95% of the CO2 before allowing the remaining flue gases to vent. As with DACCS, the CO2 is then highly pressurised in order to be "sequestered".
BECCS also requires an additional high density energy supply for "sequestration". Much of the "sequestered" CO2 wouldn't have been emitted in the first place if it wasn't required for the DACCS aspect of the BECCS process.
This energy requirement is also an added energy cost for the power station. Any energy it expends is energy it doesn't generate for use by anyone else.
While the UK Government's claimed sequestration of CO2 is already starting to look shaky on the above grounds, Drax itself has given the rider that CCUS only makes a degree of sense when "powered by green electricity". If the energy that drives CCUS technology is a net emitter of CO2, the whole idea rapidly becomes ridiculous.
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) initially decreed that burning wood (biomass) in power plants was "carbon neutral”:
Accepted emission factors shall be used. [. . .] IPCC default values are acceptable for refinery products. The emission factor for biomass shall be zero.
Having left the EU in 2016, the UK Government fully adopted the EU ETS, calling the resultant 2021 UK ETS a "scheme" instead of a "system". Just like the IPCC and the EU system, the UK ETS also asserts that burning biomass is "carbon neutral”:
Operators can only claim an emission factor of zero for the fraction of the fuel or material that is biomass [. . .] biomass is zero-rated [in terms of emissions].
Wood pellets are said to have "zero emissions" because mature trees consume CO2. Once felled and burned in power plants they release that CO2, but new replacement trees can then be planted, thus removing the corresponding quantity of CO2.
Consequently, as the wood-pellet biofuel supposedly has "net zero emissions", Drax claims that, with BECCS active, the Selby power plant can effectively become "carbon negative". That is to say it will remove "more CO2 than it emits". At least, that's the theory claimed by Drax and the UK Government.
Unfortunately, only mature trees "sequester" CO2 in notable volume, and they take 30–100 years to grow. Drax denies that it uses prime timber for its wood pellets, claiming it is sourced from sawdust, timber mill waste and forest debris. Yet a Canadian forestry database shows that only 11% of the timber Drax imported from Canada was of this lower grade.
Perhaps BECCS truly is magic, because Drax' power plant is the single largest CO2 emitter in the UK. This doesn't necessarily mean it isn't "carbon neutral". As long as Drax manages to plant and grow trees as fast as it cuts them down and burns them, BECCS could be working miracles.
The UN report State of the World's Forests 2022 notes:
The rate of deforestation is declining but was still 10 million hectares per year in 2015–2020. Some 47 million hectares of primary forests was lost between 2000 and 2020.
This isn't all Drax' fault, but we only have one atmosphere—so, try as it might to plant super-fast-growing trees, there is no way Drax can legitimately claim that its BECCS plant is "carbon neutral”. It simply emits a lot of CO2. In addition, Drax appears to be cutting trees down faster than they grow.
Wood pellets are not as energy-dense as coal. In order to generate the same amount of electricity, notwithstanding the energy it loses to BECCS, Drax has to burn a far greater mass of wood pellets than it would coal. Consequently, burning wood pellets "emits more carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than coal—and far more than other fossil fuels”.
Neither the EU ETS nor the UK ETS takes full account of the energy cost of the necessary forestry and logging operations, the diesel powered shipping of the wood pellets from North America and Europe, or the energy required to process the timber or to transport the "biomass" once onshore. The claim of "removing" CO2 is preposterous.
In October 2021 Drax was removed from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index as environmentalist groups realised that biomass power generation on an industrial scale isn't actually "green" at all. Speaking in August 2022, the then UK Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said that the Drax project "doesn’t make any sense”.
Yet—amid a cost of living crisis, largely driven by spiralling energy prices—the UK Government has continued to pour subsidies into its sustainable development plan. Not only is this strategy contributing to increased energy prices, but it has resulted in unnecessarily high CO2 emissions.
The huge subsidies are all fantastic news for Drax' investors, as the share price has hit an all-time high. Drax' leading investors include Schroder, Invesco, BlackRock and Vanguard. As Invesco's top shareholders also include Vanguard and Blackrock, it is well positioned to benefit handsomely from the British taxpayers' multi-billion-pound gift.
Schroder's primary shareholder is Vincitas ltd, an opaque investment firm registered in the offshore corporate tax haven of Bermuda, a British overseas territory. Thanks to UK Government subsidies for Drax, Vincitas also stands to profit splendidly from British taxpayers' commitment to "sustainable development".
Neither DRACCS nor BECCS actually uses "ultra-low-carbon energy sources". The value of carbon dioxide capture, usage and storage, from a CO2 "sequestration" perspective, appears to be negligible to nil. Nonetheless, with its Hydrogen Strategy, the UK Government remains committed to its Hydrogen Pathway. This relies heavily upon CCUS.
The Government notes a couple of hurdles that need to be overcome:
There are almost no abundant natural sources of pure hydrogen, which means that it has to be manufactured. The most common production route is steam methane reformation, where natural gas is reacted with steam to form hydrogen. This is a carbon-intensive process, but one which can be made low carbon through the addition of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS)—to produce a gas often called ‘blue hydrogen’. Hydrogen can also be produced through electrolysis, where electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen—gas from this process is often referred to as ‘green hydrogen’ or zero carbon hydrogen when the electricity comes from renewable sources.
This plan was echoed at the COP27 conference. Green hydrogen was suggested as a "low-carbon", energy-dense fuel source that could be used for numerous industrial, commercial and domestic purposes:
Hydrogen has been identified as the potential energy source for the future, with an increasing focus from all stakeholders on Hydrogen, in particular Green Hydrogen. [. . .] 90 Mt (million metric tonnes) of hydrogen are produced annually, mainly from natural gas. Less than 0.5% of this hydrogen was produced from renewable electricity in 2020.
Looking to the UK, if current hydrogen demand—the gas is used in the agricultural, aviation, space, petroleum and many other industries—is going to be met with green hydrogen, then the suggestion is that "renewable energy" capacity, devoted solely to hydrogen production, needs to expand two hundredfold at least. This is in addition to the huge increase in "renewables" supposedly needed for every other energy demand.
However the UK Government Hydrogen Strategy presents a possible solution:
Our ‘twin track’ approach capitalises on the UK’s potential to produce large quantities of both electrolytic ‘green’ and CCUS-enabled ‘blue’ hydrogen.
According to the Government, the "carbon-intensive process" of producing hydrogen using "natural gas" is transformed into "low-carbon" blue hydrogen by CCUS. The government calls this "CCUS-enabled hydrogen”. It is widely considered to have a higher CO2 cost than simply generating energy with natural gas directly.
The cost of this will be immense, because "hydrogen is currently much more costly to produce and use than existing fossil fuels". This is an added cost to the enormous subsidies that taxpayers are already paying for DACCS and BECCS. The Government believes the Hydrogen Pathway will be trod by combining these hugely expensive, highly questionable technologies:
Current analysis suggests that in 2050, hydrogen will be supplied through a mix of steam methane reformation with CCUS, electrolysis from renewable electricity, and biomass gasification with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
Blue hydrogen (CCUS enabled) is unlikely to contribute anything to CO2 "removal”. The chances of producing green hydrogen on the envisioned scale with "renewables", which would be both environmentally damaging and exorbitantly expensive, are practically nought.
Perhaps "biomass gasification" with BECCS can produce such vast, relative quantities of hydrogen that the hydrogen itself could then be used to make BECCS feasible, or something like that. Otherwise, the UK Government's stated intention to remove 20–30 MtCO2/year by 2030 seems risible.
Trees are not the only potential source of biomass energy. Traditional biomass includes the wood fuels, dung and other agricultural by-products that billions of people worldwide still use for cooking and heating. This contrasts with modern biomass, which generally refers to the various forms of biomass as an industrial or domestic energy source.
Modern biomass may be burned directly—wood pellets, for example—but it can also be turned into biofuels. Typically made from corn, soybeans, sugar cane and similar crops diverted from human and animal consumption, biofuels are often produced by the thermochemical transformation of biomass into solid, liquid or gaseous form. Perhaps, then, these biofuels could be used for the "biomass gasification" of hydrogen in the necessary quantity.
The problem is, once you account for the farming, harvesting, processing, transportation and storage of the biomass, and then consider the energy cost of its thermochemical conversion into a biofuel, the "carbon footprint" of first-, second- and third-generation biofuels as an energy source is the same as or greater than it that of an equivalent fossil fuel.
Even if you don't use wood pellets, but instead use some other biofuel, the manufacturing of hydrogen remains a"carbon-intensive process". As we have already discussed, BECCS is unlikely to offset this additional CO2. While the manufactured hydrogen may produce "zero emissions", there is no corresponding CO2 removal, nor any notable reduction in emissions.
Recognising this problem, Imperial College London has presented some models outlining how biofuels could be produced in sufficient quantities for a modern industrial economy without emitting more CO2 that otherwise would be released by the use of fossil fuels. Acknowledging that the production of biofuels is an energy intensive process, ICL states:
In the 2050 timeframe it is assumed that sufficient quantities of renewable hydrogen will be available to be used in advanced biofuel thermochemical conversion technologies[.] [. . .] For 2030 and 2050, the success of synthetic biofuels via the gasification technology, and especially for FischerTropsch biofuels, is very critical[.] [. . .] When combined with renewable hydrogen, Fischer-Tropsch becomes the most productive route.
I'm sure you see the problem.
Despite the staggering challenges outlined above, EDF Energy, the French-owned British company, is undeterred and is ready to move ahead with its Tees Green Hydrogen project. When the wind is the right speed or it is a bright sunny day, some genuinely “green hydrogen” will be manufactured. EDF is yet to reveal details of its green hydrogen plant but says it hopes to seek planning approval some time soon.
EDF’s strategic hydrogen partnership with Rosatom for the development of “renewable hydrogen” will undoubtedly benefit its proposed Teesside project. EDF’s International Division Group Executive Vice-President, Béatrice Buffon, said:
The agreement with the Rosatom Group, our historical partner in Russia and one of the country's key players in the field of decarbonised hydrogen, illustrates EDF's desire to develop a new energy model with lower CO2 emissions wherever we operate.
The UK Government's alleged ambition to remove 20–30 Mt CO2/year from the British economy by 2030 cannot possibly be achieved with existing renewable or “low-carbon” energy technology. This country hasn’t even started constructing the energy infrastructure that it would need to achieve this ambition—which, without a significant investment in nuclear power, isn’t possible anyway.
It is so far outside the parameters of plausibility that you wonder what purpose such asinine statements serve.