BLOG Passing the ‘relay baton’: findings from our focus on CO2 storage sites

By Dr Maxine Akhurst, British Geological Survey, WP3 lead

We are now midway through the ALIGN-CCUS project and, while this milestone may be of little interest to those not actively involved, for myself and the international colleagues on the project, it is a major milestone against which we measure our research progress. It also demonstrates to the national organisations who are funding our work that we are working well together to achieve their objectives.

Public awareness of the need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the atmosphere, and the adverse global impact of rising temperatures on the environment, has heightened over the last 18 months. The urgency to reduce carbon without also increasing the cost of household items or the energy we need makes timely delivery of our work all the more pressing. In the ALIGN-CCUS project, the operators of the industrial plants and manufacturers, who produce the materials and energy that we use, are equally driven to progress and implement the low-carbon technological developments within their own companies.

In this project, I lead the research group seeking to reduce the cost and time taken to provide secure and permanent CO2 storage sites. The mid-point of the project is all the more important to me and my CO2 storage research colleagues from the UK, Norway and the Netherlands since our work informs later activities in the project. Our technical work must be completed and the findings made available to the other ALIGN-CCUS researchers for us all to achieve our objectives by the end of the project in 2020.

From the start we had planned to complete our technical work within the first 18 months of the project, but there has been much to do. So I am delighted, and also relieved, to have now completed our research and passed on our findings, like the baton in a relay race, to our colleagues.

Our CO2 storage research has been both retrospective and forward looking. We have looked back, as nations, at what we have done and what we have achieved when planning and operating CO2 storage sites since the 1990s.
More than two decades ago the low-carbon technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS) was in its infancy. Over the last 23 years, understanding the practicalities of implementing CO2 storage in an offshore site has grown through adolescence to maturity. We have learned from the investigation and planning of prospective sites, meeting the rules and regulations to achieve the necessary permits and, in Norway, successful operation of offshore CO2 storage sites.

Setbacks in the process, experienced in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands, and how they have been overcome, have provided hard-earned experience. Our approach has been to ask ourselves how we can streamline the process of investigation and planning for a new CO2 storage site, from the learning and experience of the previous decades.

When investigating and planning a CO2 storage site, various licences must be gained: firstly, a licence to explore a potential site; secondly, a permit to store CO2 as part of a CCS project; subsequently, permission to commence CO2 injection and so operate the site. It is essential both to demonstrate that stringent regulatory standards have been met and to instil confidence in the investment by government and industry into CO2 storage site research and CCS project development.

Each of the ALIGN-CCUS CO2 storage researchers has contributed to investigating prospective geological sites for CO2 storage in their respective countries, myself included. We have investigated potential CO2 storage sites, associated with planned or operational industry CCS projects, in deeply buried strata beneath the North Sea, mapping and studying them with support from national and European funding programmes.

All prospective sites must meet the same European rules and regulations, although each country has its own national requirements and procedures to achieve this common standard. By looking back, we have been able to agree nine practical steps required from first recognising a prospective geological CO2 store within a national portfolio of sites to operating an industry CCS project.

Our inspiration is drawn from Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), used to indicate progress in development of an innovative technology from first inception to practical delivery of a saleable product. Our steps or levels indicate the degree of “readiness” of a prospective site for storage and we have therefore termed them "CO2 Storage Readiness Levels", or SRLs.

Our proposed framework of nine levels has greatly benefitted from the voluntary input and discussion with regulators and offshore industry representatives. Input from regulators has ensured the progression through the SRLs is correct and consistent with the licensing steps required by European legislation.

First-hand discussion with offshore industry operators has been invaluable to integrate the details of scientific and technical research investigations with the planning required by industry for a CCS project. Industry input has allowed us to bridge the gap between research investigation of potential storage sites to the subsequent technical design, planning and assurance needed for financial investment in a CCS project. It has ensured SRLs are consistent with industry management systems.

The title of each SRL is a brief description of the activities achieved. Each level is underpinned by greater detail of the site investigation activities likely to have been completed, licensing required, technical appraisal and project planning for each step.

We have had many discussions within our team and gathered advice from regulators and industry in order to agree an international, standardised approach for our SRL framework. Although derived from the experience and learning gained from North Sea stores in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands, our intention is that the SRLs will be applied much more widely.

Where a level has a direct equivalent in the industry CCS project management system, we have coined the same terms. Application of the framework requires a degree of judgement since each geological site is unique, like everything else in the natural world, and also other non-geological factors have to be considered.

Objectivity is very important for scientific research so we completed our framework first before applying it to the portfolio of prospective and planned sites in each of our countries. It was very exciting to understand how our research findings could be used and what the results would reveal.

Application of the SRL framework illustrated the level of understanding for each of the hundreds of sites in our national portfolios. It also indicated which sites were “ready” to be considered as a store for a planned or future CCS project.

We selected a store in each of our respective countries, which is either “ready” for a CCS project or already operating as a CO2 store and has been investigated by national and/or European funding. Looking back, we measured both the time taken to achieve the SRL and also assessed the money invested to investigate and license the three sites. Looking forward, this gives us guidance on the likely timescale and the level of investment to be included as part of the planning for the investigation and licensing of new CO2 storage sites.

Why is this important? By applying the framework of SRLs, from our research findings and our own national experience, the selection and investigation of a storage site can be streamlined. Learning from the North Sea experience gives realistic estimates of the time and cost needed to bring a site to operational storage and so increase the confidence of investors and operators. With greater experience, the duration and cost needed for a prospective CO2 store to become an operational site should both reduce.

Halfway through the ALIGN-CCUS project, it has been rewarding to present the findings from all the CO2 storage research activities to our partners and colleagues. It has also reminded me of the initial thrill of discovery experienced during our work.

Our objective remains to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere from industrial sources by application of our results to accelerate and reduce the cost of CCS as a low-carbon technology. I hand on the relay baton to my fellow researchers to continue the race to reduce costs and CO2 emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change on our environment.

The ALIGN-CCUS storage researchers are now planning to present our research findings to the wider CCS community and look forward to presenting our work, firstly by a webinar and then by publication in Autumn 2019. Watch this storage space!