The last decade or so has seen a huge shift in attitudes to net zero carbon. There is now a strong and growing recognition that fossil fuels can play their part in the transition, with innovation and new thinking being used to bolster the green energy revolution.
This change of mindset has been stimulated by the Net Zero Technology Centre, an exciting venture created as part of the Aberdeen City Region Deal and charged with developing and deploying technology to build an affordable zero carbon energy industry.The organisation has just celebrated its fifth anniversary
. It may have been in existence for a relatively short time, but the centre's Chief Executive, Colette Cohen, reflects that the outlook on climate change has changed radically over that period.
“We hadn’t quite entered into the energy transition place we are in today when we launched in 2017”, she recalls. “There is now so much understanding of and drive for action on climate change.
“There were a lot of concerns around oil and gas at the time we were formed and we were brought in to aid the industry in terms of recovery. The aim was to maximise the value of the North Sea.
“However, from the very beginning, we put together a technology roadmap, recognising that we need to be thinking about things like automation, robotics and subsea as well as our carbon footprint.”
The centre continues to work on leveraging innovative technology to ensure a net zero energy future. Oil and gas are still needed and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, because products continue to be created from them and they can produce energy efficiently.
“We have to ensure this is done with the lowest carbon footprint possible” Ms Cohen adds. “That is in our DNA. We have underpinned our work with a huge amount of activity and investment.”
The statistics speak for themselves. Over the five years, a total of £192 million has been co-invested by the centre with industry. More than 300 projects have been approved, a total of 1450 technologies screened and 86 field trials completed.
The organisation has also seen 29 commercialisations, forged relationships with 64 partners and helped with the acceleration of 33 start-ups, with 12 currently beginning their innovation journey.
The centre’s strategy focuses on delivering technology in three key areas. These are emissions reduction; energy systems integration; and the deployment of digitisation and automation to drive emissions reduction and a net zero future - the so-called Offshore Energy 4.0 initiative.
“Considering that we only started in February 2017, I think we have enjoyed a phenomenal success rate. We have a clear vision of how we will develop innovation”, Ms Cohen says.
She is particularly pleased at the way in which companies have been helped by the centre. “Our TechX programme is an accelerator where we invest in the companies, while our Solutions Centre invests in the technology.
“We try and help a small young business to go from a great idea to a fully fledged and functioning operation. Importantly, virtually all the ones we have been involved with have come through the pandemic and are still thriving. We have a really high success rate.
“We are also using our newest cohort of 12 start-up companies to champion diversity and inclusion in the emerging heavy industry arena. It’s an area where we currently don’t have as many females as we would like.
“The average of women co-founders globally is between 8 and 14 per cent - we want to get to more than 30 per cent. We have actually exceeded that with this new group.”
She is delighted, she says, that the oil and gas industry has shown so much support for the sector. “It has been very supportive of the fact that we can get ideas into field trials as quickly as we possibly can.”
Colette Cohen believes that the centre’s success is founded on strong intent, proper funding and having a highly committed and talented team. “We also have a great industry to support.
“Our focus is clear - we are here to develop and deploy technology and to accelerate an affordable net zero energy system. We have to get to a point where our next generation of energy is cost competitive with existing sources.
“We need to ensure it is as cheap as gas and coal. That means helping floating wind to be super cost competitive and ensuring that our oil and gas is clean and inexpensive in order to be able to supply the UK. And we need to accelerate the next generation of energy systems.”
HOW, though, can fossil fuels be clean when they are hydrocarbons? Is achieving net zero oil and gas not a contradiction in terms? The answer, she says, is to be realistic and to make them as emission free as possible.
“It’s a multi-layered, complex challenge. There is no binary answer. Until we change the products we use, we will still need oil and gas. We have to accept that at the moment, we want to live a certain lifestyle and that includes hydrocarbon-based products.
“I think there needs to be a lot of investment in finding alternative products and solutions to allow us to create the society we want to live in. But during the transition we are still going to need fossil fuels.”
She points out that even the base products needed for next generation wind farms or tidal or wave solutions still require oil and gas for their manufacture. “We have to ensure that they have the lowest carbon footprint and the lowest impact. Our job is to find alternative fuels or to have emission free production offshore.
We also need to find ways to sequester and capture carbon using the skills the oil and gas sector has today. “We also have to find ways to stimulate the generation of green and blue hydrogen to give us alternative fuels that are high energy, high density products that are comparable to oil and gas. It’s all about the transition.”
THE Net Zero Technology Centre also sees itself as having roles in providing help and advice to other businesses in decarbonising and in identifying the complementary and enabling technologies required.
It wants to expand into other sectors and to stimulate discussion about the issues in order to raise awareness - to get everyone talking, as it puts it.
Technology, Ms Cohen says, will be the key to cost effective delivery of the transition. “There are so many amazing ideas out there right now in new companies that are coming through. We’ve actually had the technology to create hydrogen for years. But there are young businesses coming in that have disruptive ideas - they have smaller footprints, lower impact, use less water and power or are more efficient.
“We need to give them a chance to develop trials. If we can make these alternative fuels more cost competitive, then people will start using them and investing in them. The desire to move to a net zero future is massive, she says. “I just don’t think that there’s great clarity yet on how to do it. The money is there, but not the certainty about what to invest in or how to deliver it.”
She believes that the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Commission, which is working on the delivery of the country’s net zero ambitions, is focusing minds in areas such as gaining an understanding of where hydrogen can be used and how we should use it. “To know what Scotland will look like in five, 10 or 15 years’ time will really help. I also think that the ScotWind seabed leasing round will provide clarity to the industry and to the supply chain about what is coming. There really is a whole new future here. We just need to start working out how to deliver it and how to use it.”
One advantage here, she adds, is Scotland’s long and rich history of innovation. “If you look back at the inventors and the entrepreneurs, our track record is super impressive for the size of country we are. We combine this record with one of the most highly skilled workforces in heavy industry anywhere in areas such as offshore oil and gas and onshore refining. We also have a really capable supply chain.
“I think the challenge is in putting all this together to build the next generation of industry. We need a bit more investment in that. There is government support for the direction of travel and getting businesses to come in with co-funding, but I think efforts there need to be bigger.
“That sort of industrial partnership operating at a government level can be hugely valuable. Scotland has a lot of the ingredients required to be successful and to be a global leader in next generation energy.”
How, then, does she see the future? “We need to find the roadmap to net zero along with the technology, the innovation and the support in the supply chain. I think there is a great place for us over the next 20 years. I’m proud of what we’ve done in our first five years, and there’s a massive role for us going forward.”