Humber Zero: decarbonising an industrial cluster

Plans to decarbonise the UK’s most polluting industrial region will see a revival of carbon capture and storage coupled with production of blue hydrogen. Jason Ford reports

VPI-Immingham provides steam and power to refineries in the Humber region (Image: Vitol)

Decarbonisation and the journey to Net Zero by 2050 is not incompatible with heavy industry which has found a saviour in technology seemingly dismissed by a former chancellor of the exchequer.

In 2012 funds worth £1bn were ring-fenced by David Cameron’s coalition government to fast-track the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Two bids – Shell and SSE’s CCS scheme at Peterhead and Capture Power Ltd’s White Rose project at Drax Power station – looked set to move forward until funding was removed by George Osborne in November 2015.

Step forward to 2018 and a report titled: ‘Clean Growth: The UK Carbon Capture Usage and Storage deployment pathway’ in which Claire Perry, former MP and minister of state for energy and clean growth, said: ‘If we are to enjoy the benefits of a broad and thriving industrial base in the second half of the century, CCUS gives us credible routes to decarbonise the processes that underpin many of these sectors. The main barriers now are not technological: rather, government and the sector need to work together to build the frameworks to enable CCUS to deploy at scale.’

Perry’s report followed the International CCUS Summit held in November 2018 in which government pledged – and is on course to deliver via the funding of industry-led projects – the deployment of CCUS by the mid-2020s.

“You can’t decarbonise as deeply as we need to without hydrogen or CCS,” says Jonathan Briggs, director of Humber Zero, a £1.2bn project to help bring down emissions in a region where heavy industry emits 12.4m tonnes of CO2 per year.

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The Humber is an industrial hub with an economy worth £18bn GVA and where one in ten jobs is associated with heavy industry. Two oil refineries, the second largest chemicals and process clusters, and an integrated steelworks all contribute to the Humber being the most carbon-intensive industrial cluster in the UK.

One kilometre from the coast, on the south bank of the Humber River, lies a cluster of energy-intensive industries that include VPI-Immingham, a 1.2GW CHP (combined heat and power) plant that provides steam and power to Phillips 66’s Humber Refinery and Prax Group’s Lindsey Refinery.

“The Immingham site is a major part of the region’s industrial set up and the emissions that go with it in the Humber,” Briggs says. “We’ve characterised a whole set of projects, both pre-combustion – meaning hydrogen – and post-combustion that will decarbonise, if we’re allowed to do them all, the CHP plant, and the two refineries.”

Humber Zero aims to remove up to eight million tonnes of CO2 per annum at the Immingham site by 2030 by integrating CCS into some of the industrial processes at VPI Immingham, which is owned by Vitol, and a major process unit – the Fluid Catalytic Cracker – at Phillips 66’s refinery, which includes graphite coke for car batteries as one of its outputs. Further plans at the site include the installation of a blue hydrogen production facility linked to CCS.

“The initial chunk of those eight million tonnes…we’re going after via post-combustion,” Briggs says. “What that looks like is retrofitting scrubbing technology to two of the gas turbine trains at the CHP plant at Immingham. Essentially, it’s solvent scrubbing of the flue gas which is a tried and tested technology for many decades but not at this scale.

An existing pipeline will take carbon dioxide in dese phase to depleted gas fields off the Lincolnshire coast (Image: Vitol)

“It’s going to be quite significant – the infrastructure we’re looking to deploy – and it’s the same type of technology that the refinery would also use at their emission stacks.

“They have a slightly different CO2 composition and volume, so the actual mechanics might dictate that you have slightly different technology providers or set up in terms of that infrastructure, but fundamentally that’s what going on and it’s quite a major piece of investment for capture at this scale.”

Humber Zero received a cash boost in March 2021 when it secured £25m in funding, with half coming from Innovate UK’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund which match-funded an investment from VPI and Phillips 66. The funding is being used to develop the carbon capture technology for Immingham and to this end the project is about to enter a 12-month FEED (front end engineering and design) process co-ordinated by Wood. By mid-2023, VPI’s side of the project is scheduled to enter EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) but according to Briggs the most important milestone for Humber Zero is in the hands of government, namely that a policy framework is agreed that allows projects like under the Humber Zero umbrella to operate in the same way as offshore wind or nuclear.

“The good news is that those are the things that are being developed by the government already,” says Briggs. “I would actually credit the government that they are working on those things today.”

Indeed, at the time of writing the government had announced its Net Zero Strategy, which included £140m through the Industrial and Hydrogen Revenue Support scheme to accelerate industrial carbon capture and hydrogen.

You can’t decarbonise as deeply as we need to without hydrogen or CCS

Two carbon capture clusters – Hynet Cluster in North West England and North Wales and the East Coast Cluster in Teesside and the Humber – were chosen to lead Track 1 of a programme to decarbonise industry from 2025. Projects chosen for Track 2 will begin decarbonising industry from around 2030.

“If the clusters represent value for money for the consumer and the taxpayer then subject to final decisions of Ministers, they will receive support under the government’s CCUS Programme,” Greg Hands, minister for energy, clean growth and climate change said in a House of Commons statement.

The announcement is in line with the government’s aim for CCS technology to capture and store 20-30 MtCO2 per year by 2030 and to deliver 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production in the same timeframe.

“A number of different companies are proposing hydrogen hubs of one kind or another” says Briggs.  “Around the Immingham site Vitol…has defined a pre-combustion project to re-fuel it’s third of the three gas turbine trains and that would require, essentially, a large scale autothermal reformer being built, which is very much in line with what the government is trying to do in terms of deploying hydrogen production capacity.

Humber Zero
Image: Vitol

He adds: “Autothermal reforming is actually very exothermic, so it produces a lot of steam. That’s another great advantage of doing it in and around …a refining complex because you need a lot of steam, so we would integrate it into the steam and utility balance that we already provide from a Vitol perspective to the site.

“It would integrate quite nicely, so that’s another reason why you want to see these early blue hydrogen projects at industrial sites like Immingham. That’s what we will move forward with, hopefully a project next year to work with government in the same way that we are with the post-combustion project.”

Blue hydrogen is the main focus at Immingham although Phillips 66 is progressing Gigastack, a green hydrogen project separate to Humber Zero that along with project partners ITM, Ørsted and Element Energy aims to generate green hydrogen and electricity from nearby offshore wind and electrolysis.

“One of the greatest attributes of the Immingham site is because of the scale – because of the different parts of industry that you have there – you have the opportunity to actually deploy all of these different technologies at the same site and not put all of your eggs in one basket…because there’s multiple uses of large-scale blue hydrogen production and small-scale green hydrogen, Briggs notes. “That’s because it actually produces a very slightly different product that can be used at the same site and so it’s a great advantage.”

Humber Zero is part of the V Net Zero Humber Cluster, which is led by Harbour Energy and includes Prax, and EPUKI. As the storage and transportation arm of wider decarbonisation efforts in the Humber region, VNZ aims to capture over 50 per cent of industrial emissions using existing onshore infrastructure and depleted gas fields off the Lincolnshire coast. VNZ says it expects to securely store up to 11 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030, and over 12 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2034.

According to Briggs, the scale of Humber Zero will see CO2 transported in dense phase.  “In other words, a super critical liquid which allows for the volume of CO2 to go into pipelines and be transported at the scale of millions of tonnes,” he says. “There is an existing pipeline out to these fields which was used to import natural gas. It’s a 36” pipeline so it would be able to take a huge volume of CO2 out to those fields.”

In keeping with similar government-funded decarbonisation projects there is an expectation that knowledge will be shared so that, in Briggs’ words, ‘we don’t reinvent the wheel every single time we do these projects’.

“Beyond that though, I think just the know-how of operating plants with CCS is something companies will actually take away from this,” Briggs says. “There’ll be a lot of great experience of combining these industries effectively, operating a power plant that is now connected to a transportation and storage network.”