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Northern Lights – shared transport and storage infrastructure for Europe’s CO₂ emissions

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can become one of the world’s most important industries. But industrial emitters who want to implement carbon capture face a major problem: what are they going to do with the CO₂ emissions they capture?

Published 15 March 2023

Northern lights over mountains

According to a 2020 report by Carbon Limits and THEMA Consulting Group, CCS has an important role to play in achieving a climate-neutral Europe. Large-scale CO₂ transport and storage infrastructure is essential. This infrastructure is, however, not yet in place.

“There is currently no value chain for carbon transport and storage. The majority of the carbon capture projects are limited to a single point source and directly linked to a storage facility,” says Sverre Overå at Equinor.

Overå is the project director of the Northern Lights project: a collaboration between Equinor, Shell and Total that is paving the way for a shared European infrastructure for carbon transport and storage.

“In a nutshell, the Northern Lights project will provide a service for transporting and storing CO₂. It’s an entirely new business model,” he explains.

Northern Lights will be the first of its kind – an open access infrastructure for transporting CO₂ from onshore industrial capture sources in Europe to an offshore storage location below the seabed of the North Sea. The aim is to enable industrial companies to start capturing CO₂ emissions without having to build their own transport and storage solutions from scratch.

“By providing an open and accessible network for transport and storage of CO₂, Northern Lights will open the door for many more companies to implement carbon capture,” says Overå.

Man standing infront of industrial machines

Sverre Overå, project director of Northern Lights, in front of the Northern Lights template.

Building a scalable value chain for CO₂

This is the vision for Northern Lights: a network of tanker ships will transport liquefied CO₂ from intermediate storage facilities in Europe to a receiving terminal at Øygården on Norway’s western coast. The emissions will then be treated, pumped through pipelines and injected into a rock formation nearly 3 km below the seabed for sequestration.

This will allow industrial emitters to start capturing CO₂ emissions without having to worry about where to store them.

“The solution is flexible enough to receive CO₂ from capture sites all over Europe,” says Overå.

In spring 2020, Equinor, Shell and Total completed the drilling of a confirmation well in the North Sea, roughly 100 km from the Norwegian coastline. Dubbed “Eos”, the well will be used to inject CO₂ into the storage complex once Northern Lights goes into operation in 2024.

“We’re building this system step by step. The point is not to receive all of Europe’s emissions at Øygården immediately, but to create a value chain that grows as carbon capture becomes more widespread. We can add more ships, expand intermediate storage terminals and drill more wells as needed,” says Overå.

“In the first phase we will use existing technology. However, scaling up operations and cutting costs will call for new solutions, innovation and technology development. These will enable us to accelerate development of this extremely important market,” he adds.

Collaboration with Microsoft

In order to realise the vision of a European CCS network, Northern Lights has signed letters of intent with a wide range of industrial and energy heavyweights, including Air Liquide, ArcelorMittal, Ervia, Fortum Oyj, HeidelbergCement, Preem, Stockholm Exergi and ETH Zürich.

“We’re talking about building an entirely new ecosystem with industrial actors who are not used to working together. We have to create a market at the same time as we develop our business model,” says Overå.

Microsoft joined the project in October 2020.

“Our goal is not only to contribute our technology and know-how, but explore how new solutions like the Northern Lights project can help us meet our own carbon negative goals by 2030,” said Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, in a press release.

Complete carbon capture and storage value chain in Norway

CCS is considered essential to Europe achieving its emission reduction targets. This is because in the foreseeable future it will be technologically impossible or exorbitantly expensive to eliminate CO₂ emissions from certain sectors, such as waste incineration and cement and steel production. Although it is possible to reduce emissions, achieving net-zero emission targets will require capturing and storing the remaining CO₂.

“Carbon capture is not an alternative to electrification and the transition to renewable energy sources, but rather a tool to remove emissions from sectors that are very difficult to decarbonise,” Overå points out.

The Norwegian government has long stressed the importance of carbon capture and storage as a climate tool, both in Norway and internationally, and has supported technology development, pilot projects and more for years. In autumn 2020, the Storting (Norwegian parliament) approved the construction of a full-scale, integrated CCS system. The Longship project, as it is called, encompasses the entire value chain from carbon capture to transport and storage and is the first of its kind in the world.

In addition to Northern Lights, the Longship project also includes state funding of a full-scale carbon capture facility at Norcem’s cement factory in Brevik. The government also intends to fund a carbon capture facility at Fortum Oslo Varme’s waste incineration plant in Oslo, provided that the project secures sufficient own funding as well as funding from the EU or other sources.

The government has invested roughly USD 2 billion in Northern Lights – 80 per cent of the total budget for the first 10 years. As the market for carbon capture matures, the project will be able to generate revenue from transporting and storing CO₂.

“These are major investments. But we believe that this market will become profitable in time, with positive ripple effects for the environment and the Norwegian supplier industry. We must succeed if we are to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement,” concludes Overå.

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