UKCCSRC April 2019 Conference: Ever thought about what scientists and engineers talk about at their conferences? They talk about everyone else (and in our case, the energy transition)

This blog was co-authored by Hisham Al Baroudi, Solene Chiquier and MennatAllah Labib.

We are three PhD students from three different universities that came together along with a bunch of other students and experts in the CCUS field to attend a bi-annual conference hosted by the UKCCSRC. These conferences are only attended by people from within the CCUS community, but we would like for everyone (those of you who are within the CCUS community, and those of you who are not) to know how it all went. With the climate change crisis that our generation is facing, it is a good idea for everyone to know what the experts can do about it and to take part in the narrative.

In mid-April, some of the most dedicated people to the planet came together to meet and discuss what they have been doing to fight climate change. On the 16th and 17th of April, the UKCCSRC held a network conference in Cardiff to get all the scientists and engineers that are working on CCUS to meet and expand their network. The conference was a perfect opportunity to meet other people in the field and to see what others have been doing on their quest to defeat climate change. This is also a great way for people to set up collaborations and work across different institutes, which unlocks a completely new dimension of productivity.

On the morning of Wednesday the 17th, we attended the session on “Systems and Policy” where social scientists and engineers came together to discuss the public perception of CCUS and the best time to roll out CCUS into the world and actually start sucking up all that carbon dioxide. The speakers had many valid points to make, and the audience had a chance to grill them with questions.

First up, who does the public think should pay for the energy transition?

The first presentation was by Professor Nick Pidgeon, Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University. He is also a co-investigator to the UKERC (UK Energy Research Centre) and the Head of Social Sciences on the revolutionary FLEXIS project. Coming from a psychology background and having held so many notable positions, he managed to provide many valuable insights on the public’s perspectives and acceptability of who should pay for the energy transition.

For those of you reading this who do not work in the energy sector, the energy transition is the phasing of our energy systems from high-carbon to low-carbon. This is easier said than done and there are several obstacles that need to be overcome for this transition to be made (that is why it is taking so long for the world to go all out with renewables). This article is an easy read that explains the energy transition and what its obstacles are.

Most experts and governing bodies, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have reason to believe that this energy transition cannot be made without the use of CCUS. However, one of the main obstacles preventing the deployment of CCUS is public acceptance. Public acceptance is a major issue, and it is slowing down the use of CCUS on a global scale. Just the previous day, we heard how public acceptance (or should we say rejection) of CCUS got a project that was bound to be built in The Netherlands cancelled, despite the project being backed with funding and governmental support.

Nick Pidgeon started his presentation by surprising all of us. According to what he found through his engagement with the public, he discovered that least cost investments are not necessarily what the public wants (engineers and scientists are trained to look for the most cost effective option, and end up assuming that the general public also wants the cheapest way out). The main points he wanted the experts to be aware of regarding what the public thought of CCUS are:

  • The public knows about each of the transition vectors that can be used to decarbonise our energy systems (e.g., CCUS, nuclear power, wind energy), but they are not aware about the whole system, and how all these vectors can and should be integrated together to decarbonise energy. This was one of the findings of the UKERC Phase 2 Project (2011 to 2013).
  • The public does not see BECCS and CCUS as a solution. Some people thought that these options just facilitated more burning. BECCS is a technique that taps into the natural carbon cycle and uses CCUS resulting in net negative emission power generation. You can read more about it here.
  • Some Scottish people were concerned about being the world’s ‘dustbin’. That is because the North Sea off the coast of Scotland has many sites that are suitable for CO2 storage. This is actually an existing debate among scientists and the policy makers: should countries with ample storage sites allow other countries to store their CO2 for them, or should each country handle its own CO2, bearing in mind that some countries would simply not have the storage space. And if countries do start allowing other countries to store their CO2 for them, how should this be regulated?

People wanted to know who would pay for the energy transition. Would the costs come out of the consumers’ pockets, would governments and industries pay for it, or would a middle ground be reached where the costs are distributed? Most people thought that the government and the energy companies should pay for the energy transition.

There are several things that need to be taken into consideration when going about the energy transition besides all the technical concerns that we are always focused on. The general public have concerns and need assurances, and these should be a top priority. Energy is seen as a basic human need, and, therefore, people think that excessive profits are simply unfair while so many people are struggling to pay their energy bills. It is very important that there is greater transparency and accountability, and that how money (especially profits) is spent is clearly justified. Energy companies need to credibly show that they are not driven by profits alone (kind of like the Welsh water company). It is also important to acknowledge that people are hugely uncomfortable with behavioural changes that drastically intervene with their lives. Major behaviour changes have occurred in the past (e.g., smoking, seat belts) but with complex marketing campaigns, mostly, people would just prefer the industry to make the changes.


What do the people of Scotland think?

Our second speaker was Dr. David Reiner, a political scientist currently lecturing in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, as well as the UKCCSRC deputy Director for Systems and Policy. He told us about a series of focus groups and public juries that were conducted in Peterhead, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen to get some insights to what Scottish people think of the energy transition and CCUS. It should be noted that Peterhead was going to be home to a huge CCS plant that got cancelled at the very last minute, Aberdeen is considered an oil and gas capital, and Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland. The focus groups were evenly split between across different genders, ages, education levels, social class, and climate change beliefs, and their participants were recruited by a third-party, unbiased marketing company.

One of the most notable findings was that, unlike the focus groups from England that Nick Pidgeon had worked with, the Scottish focus groups revealed support for the nationalisation of energy resources. One of the reasons that this might be the case is that the focus groups in Scotland were conducted right after Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, had just mentioned a national energy company. This was also at a time when Scottish independence was being discussed, especially regarding the resources coming from the North Sea.

It was also interesting to find out that there was strong support for diversification of energy sources and renewables across all three cities, including in Aberdeen where most people’s livelihoods are reliant on the oil and gas industry, although people still had concerns about what would happen to oil and gas employees. Interestingly, the perceived importance of oil and gas decreased after the jury assessments as opposed to before the juries in Aberdeen, whereas it increased in Edinburgh.

As for public awareness, 12 to 15% of the Scottish public know what CCUS is, and they support it. Although that is a small percentage, it is greater than that of England and most other parts of the world. David Reiner and his group were concerned about going to Peterhead to discuss CCS after the cancellation of the Peterhead project, which had promised plenty of new jobs to the people. However, out of the 19 participants from the Peterhead public, only one had heard about the project!

Overall, the people of Scotland are convinced that we should do everything we can to fight climate change and support CCUS and renewables. They have several concerns about the future livelihoods of oil and gas employees and the storage of the carbon dioxide; however, they have no doubts about the importance of climate change mitigation.

It should be noted that the two studies that were carried out by Nick Pidgeon and David Reiner only addressed CCUS in the context of energy systems and the energy transition. The public’s perception on the use of CCUS in industries other than the energy sector have not been studied because they require deliberative engagement, which has cost and time issues. The carbon footprint of industry is becoming more important everyday as the energy sector’s emissions are slowly being replaced with clean renewables. The cement, petroleum refining, steel, and pulp and paper industries are among the biggest culprits.


What is the value of CCS?

Niall Mac Dowell gave a very interesting and relevant presentation on the value of CCUS systems and their application. Despite several misconceptions on CCUS, which is often perceived as a sunk cost, it is instead found that CCUS systems can give an added value to the economy; as such, CCGT-CCS technologies provide the greatest value. Indeed, different technologies incur in different costs, however Niall highlights that we should not believe in unicorns and wait for the perfect technology to come by before applying CCUS. This is because high efficiency has relatively limited value in comparison with investment costs, and flexibility. Therefore, having a perfect technology will not have such a remarkable impact on feasibility of CCUS as a whole.

In summary, not only CCUS does have a value, but it will also create jobs across all levels of the economy.


How would the UK electricity system evolve in a below 2°C world?

Our last speaker was Habiba Ahut Daggash, a third year PhD student at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, and a member of the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership (SSCP DTP) at the Grantham Institute.

Negative emissions: where and how much?

As aforementioned, recent IPCC reports have highlighted that large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) (i.e., any anthropogenic activity that results in a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) is critical to meeting the Paris Agreement target. CDR can be achieved by several solutions such as afforestation/reforestation, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air capture and storage (DACCS).

Integrated Assessment Models used to assess possible decarbonisation pathways by 2100 estimate that 430-740 GtCO2 of CDR would be required, in addition to afforestation/reforestation, to meet the Paris target, of which 20-70 GtCO2 of CDR would be expected from the EU-28.

What is a ‘fair’ burden for the UK?

It is important to say that the IAMs considered describe the EU-28 as one or two aggregate regions, so the share of CDR that each country should actually deliver is yet unknown. Nevertheless, if the EU’s CDR burden was distributed according to the different countries’ responsibility for climate change, then the UK would be expected to provide a cumulative of 3-10 GtCO2 of CDR by 2100.

Further, because CDR is provided by the power sector in IAMs, Habiba Ahut Daggash focused on assessing the implications of this range of CDR burdens on the transition of the UK electricity system.

Meeting the UK’s Paris commitments

Three scenarios showing the evolution of the UK power supply capacity from 2015 to 2100 were implemented, in which three NETs are considered: BECCS and two archetypes of DACCS currently being developed commercially:

One in which the Climate Change Act is satisfied, meaning that the power sector is decarbonised by 2050 and stays so afterwards;
One where the Climate Change Act is satisfied but also 3 GtCO2 of CDR is achieved by 2100;
And one where the Climate Change Act target is met and 10 GtCO2 (cumulative) is achieved by 2100.

The first interesting point that Habiba made was that until 2050, the electricity systems are identical for the three scenarios. To achieve a decarbonised electricity system, increased penetration of intermittent renewables, added flexibility and energy storage is largely sufficient.

However, in the second half of the century each scenario begins to differ. Overall, deeper decarbonisation necessitates large-scale CDR deployment. As a result, the system returns to one dominated by thermal generators, particular BECCS and CCGT-CCS plants.

Two transitions were hence apparent: one that is already underway is this transition to a system dominated by intermittent renewable energy sources. This is the direction that current policy favours. A system dominated by renewables allows for the possibility of smaller-scale or isolated power systems and the decentralisation of energy services.

After 2050, Habiba showed a resurgence of thermal generation in the electricity system, mainly from CCS power plants that deliver low- or negative-carbon energy. A system reliant on utility-scale generation is inherently centralised and requires maintenance if not the extension of existing transmission and distribution networks.

So Habiba raised the point that if in the short-term decentralisation of energy services is pursued, but infrastructure that appears critical in the long-term fails to be maintained and/or developed, how then do we deliver the Paris Agreement?

How can we incentivise BECCS and DACS?

In a second time, Habiba focused on the possible economic mechanisms that could enable the deployments of CDR.

BECCS and DACCS can provide a range of services, which could be potentially remunerated in different ways. The most important service that they provide is CDR which is a public good and should be remunerated. However, many existing emissions trading or carbon pricing mechanisms are yet to value CDR. Voluntary carbon offset markets have low traded volumes and prices to incentivise investment. In the case of BECCS, it can also generate power, provide reserve capacity or ancillary services that help maintain system reliability and operability. Lastly, CDR provided by BECCS or DACCS can be used to offset CO2 emissions from other power plants or even other sectors of the economy. Could there therefore be a traded credit, and if so how much would it need to be?

Current economics of BECCS and DACS

It is important to say that of BECCS and DACCS are both to this day far from commercial viability, with DACCS being even more expensive and requiring more support, as it does not provide any other service apart from CDR.

Can carbon pricing do it all?

Habiba looked at the implications of carbon prices alone on the system transition.  As in reality, the electricity market was liberalised a while ago and risk/return prospects determine investment in technologies, emissions constraints were taken out so that carbon price could determine the system transition, and three scenarios were considered: BEIS rising to about £120/tonne; CCC shadow carbon price rising to just over £220/tonne and the social cost of carbon from the Treasury reaching £300+/tonne. In every scenario, no CDR is deployed, meaning that in the absence of an explicit incentive for CDR, climate targets cannot be met.

Crediting negative emissions

Habiba then looked at the implications of carbon negative credits on the electricity system transition.  From a system perspective, three main effects of this carbon price equivalent credit were listed:

Early incentives mean early deployment;
Interestingly, the credit favours DACS over BECCS. This is because crediting DACS leads to cost reduction whereas for BECCS, the increased cost of biomass due to exhaustion of supply counteracts some of the cost reduction and credits;
Finally, the level of deployment is lower when deployment begins earlier. If you do CDR early, the absolute amount that you would have to deploy in your system is much less.

Lastly, Habiba also mentioned that crediting CDR at the carbon price reduces the level of carbon taxation needed to deliver the Paris Target.

In conclusion, we have found that most resource rich economies tend to be laggards on climate action, they’re not just not doing it, they’re fighting its deployment elsewhere and slowing down the process for all of us (e.g. Saudi Arabia, United States, Canada). It is important to recognise that the energy transition needs to be fully discussed with the public. People need to be better informed about all the issues and possible solutions so that they can make their decisions, there really is no time for us to carry on waiting around, we need to start acting and acting now.