Stretching 81 miles out to sea from Scotland’s rugged north-east coast, the Goldeneye pipeline has helped bring vast amounts of gas back to the mainland for owner Shell during its 16 years of operation.
Yet the UK’s energy needs are changing, and Goldeneye has to change, too. Plans are under way to use it to take carbon dioxide from the mainland’s factories and power plants and stash it out of harm’s way deep under the North Sea.
The Acorn project is among several embryonic Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects being developed by Shell, Vitol, Drax and others in Yorkshire, Liverpool and elsewhere as the nation looks for evermore creative ways to cut carbon emissions.
Despite input from some of the UK’s best engineering brains and the clear demand for the service, the projects have yet to reach the next steps as politicians and industry bosses wrestle with perhaps the trickiest question: who is going to pay for them?
Industry is unlikely to fully leap into the costly arena without government support. Ministers are examining business models with the clock ticking towards the deadlines of the Paris climate goals, and the UK’s promise to hit net zero emissions by 2050.
“Despite the obvious environmental positives that come from CCS, it will require private investment which will need some certainty of return – just as with offshore wind many years ago,” says Steve Jennings, head of energy at PwC. “It’s critical we look for solutions now – CCS might be the only option when you can’t change the industrial process.”
Despite the allure of being able to scrub carbon sins, large scale carbon capture projects have been relatively slow off the ground globally. Norway led the way with its Sleipner project in 1996, and there are about 25 major projects up and running, including in the US, Australia and Abu Dhabi, with a similar number on the way.