Norway is getting closer to building the world’s first carbon-free cement plant, a move that could reverberate across the globe as 197 countries meet for the UN’s annual climate conference in Katowice, Poland.
Cement plants are not a pretty sight and the one located in Brevik, Southern Norway, is no exception. But inside the grey walls of its office buildings, employees are quietly planning a revolution that could have worldwide repercussions.
In 2013, the factory set out an ambitious goal: becoming the first zero-emission cement plant in the world. Various solutions have been tested since then, all of them using carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology pioneered in Norway which involves catching CO2 emissions at source and injecting them underground.
The cement industry is the world’s second largest industrial emitter of CO2 after steel, accounting for more than 6% of global emissions, according to CDP, a non-profit group based in the UK. If the European cement sector were a country, it would emit as much CO2 as Belgium.
“Cement is a conservative industry,” says Per Brevik, in charge of sustainability at the Norcem plant, owned by German multinational HeidelbergCement. When he announced his CCS plans, Brevik said he received panicked phone calls from Germany. “They told me ‘you are crazy, you can’t do this, it’s too aggressive’,” he recalls.
Since then, CCS has climbed up the priority list at HeidelbergCement. From a mere bullet point in 2013, it grew up to take a full page at the company’s 2016 general assembly. “In 2017, it was three pages, and among the top five priorities for HeidelbergCement,” Brevik proudly says.
Preparations are now well underway. Norcem Brevik is already among the leading cement plants in Europe when it comes to using alternative fuels coming from waste. The plant has already managed to substitute 70% of its fuel use with waste-based alternatives, such as paper, textiles, and plastics, as well as hazardous waste. Altogether, these have the potential to address around one-third of the plant’s total CO2 emissions.
But the CCS installation is the crown jewel that could make the plant 100% carbon-free. Indeed, the remaining two-thirds of cement emissions come from the process of decomposing limestone to produce clinker, which is then ground with gypsum and fly ash to obtain cement.
That process requires large amounts of heat and releases CO2 in the form of flue gas. And the whole process is CO2-intensive. “For each tonne of clinker, we produce half a tonne of CO2,” Brevik explains.
The problem is that those emissions cannot be avoided using renewable energy: CO2 will be emitted regardless of the energy used to heat the limestone. “We need carbon capture and storage to meet our goal,” Brevik told a group of journalists invited to visit the plant in October this year.
In the first stage, the CCS installation will capture just half of the plant’s CO2 emissions, in order to maintain investments and operating costs to a minimum. “If this is a success – and I think it will be – we will start making plans to reach 100%,” Brevik says.
The project’s long-term viability is not guaranteed, however, and depends largely on public financing. A final feasibility study will be published in August 2019 that will inform a Norwegian government proposal to invest in building the full-scale facility. If the Parliament approves it, the project will enter a three-year construction phase.
“The world’s first cement plant with full-scale carbon capture may thus be in operation as of 2024,” Norcem Brevik announces on its website.
There are still plenty of obstacles lying ahead, however, starting with the technical evaluations and political debates taking place in the Norwegian ministries and parliament.
Another one is the EU. Oslo wants European companies to show interest in using the transport and CO2 storage facilities that are being developed with Norwegian taxpayers’ money. And it wants the EU to help plug the financing gap to build what is presented as a shared European infrastructure – a project of common interest.
“We don’t think we can develop this just for Norway. We need to get other industries, other countries to participate also in this,” said Trude Sundset, the CEO of Gassnova, a state-owned company supporting the development, demonstration and piloting of CCS technologies in Norway.
In the case of cement, the CO2 captured at the Norcem Brevik plant would be stored temporarily on site in big containers. It would then be collected by boat and shipped off the Norwegian coast for injection deep beneath the seabed in depleted oil and gas fields where the CO2 can be stored safely.
“The most important thing for us is to demonstrate that it is possible to establish a full chain – from CO2 capture, conditioning, transport and then storage,” Brevik told EURACTIV.
Once tried and tested in Brevik, the idea is that other cement plants across Europe can adopt the technology.
A key success factor lies in the ability to mass-produce CCS modules in order to cut down costs. “It must be possible to industrialise the production of these capture plants,” Brevik said. “Because tailor-made systems will be far too expensive.”
For example, a small plant producing 100,000 tonnes of cement per year would use one or two modules, whereas a big plant producing 1,000,000 tonnes could acquire up to five, he said. Companies such as Fluor in the US and Mitsubishi in Japan have developed the know-how and could ramp up production.
Getting EU money won’t be easy, Brevik admitted. But EU support doesn’t stop there. Equally decisive is “to have pressure from European authorities on the Norwegian ministry of finance that this is an important project” and that there is interest from Europe to build on the Norwegian experience and use the infrastructure.
“There are a lot of ifs and buts but we have to remain optimistic,” Brevik said.
Editor’s note: This article was produced thanks to a press trip financed by Gassnova, a Norwegian state enterprise supporting the development, demonstration and piloting of CCS technologies.