WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Greenhouse gasses that are responsible for climate change are being emitted faster than ever before, and now companies are being incentivised to literally bury them.
Drax, the energy group, have announced they’ve signed a new deal with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) on carbon capture technologies, which they claim will let them deliver the largest carbon “negative emissions” project in the world. And if you’re wondering what that means then in short they’re going to be building a massive new plant that sucks carbon dioxide, one of the leading causes of climate change, out of the air.
Over the past couple of years carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies have been pushed center stage as climate change spawns megafires, floods countries, and ravages the planet, and recently Elon Musk announced a $100 million XPrize to encourage individuals and organisations everywhere to develop new CCS solutions.
The two companies first began working together last summer as part of a pilot project for one of MH’s CCS solutions. As that trial comes to an end, a long-term contract has been signed giving Drax licence to use MHI’s latest carbon capture solvent, KS-21, at its power plant in Selby, North Yorkshire. KS-21 was used in the trial along with another solvent called KS-1.
Also included in the new agreement is a commitment for MHI to locate its core CCS team at the company’s European headquarters in London. The team will be obliged to consider new supply chain partners to produce key solvents in the UK and to assess the possibility of creating new additional employment locations in the UK, at Drax facilities or elsewhere.
Drax claims it is already hosting the largest decarbonisation project in Europe. It has converted all coal-fired power generation at the Selby plant to biomass, in a move it estimates has reduced annual emissions by 85%. It is now working to neutralise the remaining emissions by scaling up onsite CCS technologies and is preparing for at least one of the plant’s units to reach carbon neutrality with BioEnergy with CCS (BECCS) by 2027. From there, it hopes to become a ‘carbon negative’ company by 2030.
Carbon captured at the Drax plant will be stored underground using geological systems in the North Sea. The firm’s chief executive Will Gardiner has called this a “permanent” removal solution.
Commenting on the new contract with MHI, Gardiner added: “The world urgently needs to move from making climate pledges to taking climate action. This game-changing contract between Drax and MHI could contribute to a decade of global environmental leadership from the UK and provide further stimulus to a post Covid-19 economic recovery.”
Earlier this month, Drax partnered with US engineering giant Bechtel. Bechtel will help Drax optimise and measure the impact of CCS at its Selby plant and the partners will also explore where new plants could be built across North America and Europe.
In its recommendations to the UK Government on achieving a net-zero national economy by 2050, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) concluded that current technological solutions and stronger policy frameworks could enable the UK to reduce emissions by around 97% against a 1990 baseline. The remaining 3% could be achieved by the scale-up of CCS solutions and hydrogen energy technology – both listed as a “necessity, not an option”.
A more recent report, from trade body the Renewable Energy Association (REA), states that the UK is a world leader on coal-to-biomass conversions and that, when paired with CCS, biomass is compatible with a net-zero energy sector. But BECCS has not been without its controversies.
In 2019, plaintiffs from six countries filed a lawsuit with the European General Court in Luxembourg, claiming that forest-grown wood shouldn’t be counted as a source of renewable energy under the EU’s 2018 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) II. In response, Drax produced a sustainable biomass strategy aimed at removing deforestation from its pellet supply chains but continues to face pressure from organisations including Cut Carbon Not Forests and Ember to include emissions from importing biomass in its emissions accounting.
Ember has also argued that BECCS is more expensive than other low-carbon solutions. In a report out last month, the think tank claimed that the Drax project would add some £16 per year to the average UK household’s energy bill. This calculation is based on Drax receiving £31.7bn in subsidies.
And while any organisation who’s trying to move the dial when it comes to global greenhouse emissions should be applauded the upshot of all of this is that saving the planet is a complicated affair.