Will gas power stations equipped with carbon capture and storage be the future of power plants in the UK?
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What does the power station of the future look like to you? Fleets of wind turbines and rows of solar panels might spring to mind. In the UK, it’s increasingly clear that offshore wind farms are going to be the backbone of the country’s energy system because of economics, emissions and the ecosystem of companies supplying them here. Alongside those, we’re going to need a lot more energy storage, more power links to other countries and more energy efficiency.
But it’s also a realistic possibility that we’re going to need other power stations that can be fired up at will for when we have mini wind droughts or spikes in demand. I took the train up to Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire last week to meet Alistair Phillips-Davies, the chief executive of energy giant SSE, and hear about his plans to build the world’s first hydrogen power station and another potential first, a gas power plant equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
So, what would these power stations look like?
I travelled to the incredibly flat landscape that is home to Keadby 2, an 893-megawatt gas power station in east England that SSE has virtually finished. It will almost certainly be the UK’s last gas power station without CCS. Looking out from the roof of its cooling towers, however, you can see two fields that SSE hopes to turn into Keadby 3. If it gets built and comes online towards the end of this decade, it would be the world’s first gas power station with CCS (it faces competition for the title from another project, at Peterhead in Scotland). In theory, it should capture about 95 per cent of the plant’s carbon dioxide, says Phillips-Davies. Exhaust gases from the plant will be run through a liquid, sucking up the CO2, before it’s compressed and transported through a pipeline that doesn’t exist yet. That will whisk the carbon dioxide away for storage in an old oil and gas reservoir under the seabed. Again, such a facility needs to be built.
Hang on, haven’t we been here before with CCS power stations?
With coal, yes. It didn’t work out well. There were some small-scale pilots in the UK, including one at Ferrybridge, a now-closed coal plant that isn’t a million miles from Keadby. There is one large-scale coal power station with CCS operating in Canada, but it hasn’t performed as well as hoped. There appears little appetite globally for further coal power with CCS. But Phillips-Davies thinks gas plants with CCS would be different and could be a cornerstone of meeting the UK government’s goal of a fully decarbonised power system by 2035. He concedes gas prices are “very unusual” at the moment (read: record highs), but doesn’t think that undermines the case for his vision.
What are the signs that Keadby 3 will ever be more than an artist’s impression?
Phillips-Davies says millions of pounds have already been spent and notes that SSE has earmarked “hundreds of millions” for future CCS and hydrogen projects. The planning process has already started (SSE was holding a meeting with local people 10 minutes away on the day I visited, and an initial consultation closes on 20 March). But until a final investment decision is made, it remains a proposal rather than a firm bet. Richard Howard at analysts Aurora Energy Research says the power station would clearly need some form of new government support to make it happen.
And what about the hydrogen plant?
Next to the fields where Keadby 3 might sit are car parks and cabins that could be moved to make way for Keadby Hydrogen. It would be the world’s first large hydrogen power station, if completed this decade as hoped by SSE and its partner, the Norwegian oil and gas giant Equinor. To date, most uses of hydrogen for electricity generation have been small scale and involved fuel cells in buildings, rather than burning the stuff to power turbines. The proposed new power station would arguably be even more ambitious than the CCS gas one, because no one has tried anything like this before. “On paper it sounds great,” says Jess Ralston at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK-based think tank.
This is where you’ll tell us the source of the hydrogen is important, right?
You’re one step ahead. Almost all of the world’s hydrogen today is made from fossil fuels, producing carbon emissions equivalent to those of the UK and Indonesia together each year. So the new plant will need to be fuelled with green hydrogen (made using renewable electricity and electrolysers) or blue hydrogen (reformed from natural gas with the CO2 captured and stored). Equinor is planning a blue hydrogen plant just up the road from Keadby Hydrogen, at a project called H2H Saltend.
Phillips-Davies says he thinks some blue hydrogen is the “right way to start”, to have enough volumes available and because it’s likely to be cheaper than green hydrogen. However, he says: “Ultimately, I think you want to get to green. When we build more and more of our big wind farms offshore, I suspect then we’ll get into green hydrogen. We’re doing a lot of work on what size an electrolyser fleet can SSE own by the end of this.” For now, he says low-carbon hydrogen consumption and production simply needs to get going. “The hydrogen journey is just starting.”
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