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Going underground

Why the subsurface is vital in delivering a net zero carbon economy

04/02/2021
UKGEOS 3D visualisation
A BGS scientist explores a 3D visualisation of the subsurface. Source: BGS © UKRI

In December 2020 the UK Prime Minister announced a plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’. Set out in a new Energy White Paper, it aims to deliver sustainable growth and a net-zero carbon emission economy by 2050. The challenges and opportunities presented by this ambition are considerable. They will impact on all sectors of our economy, and on the lives and livelihoods of all UK citizens. At the heart of the technical challenge is how to decarbonise power and industry, transport, and the heating and cooling of buildings. At the British Geological Survey we firmly believe that the subsurface has a vital role in meeting this challenge.

Geoscience solutions for Net Zero
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Geoscience has an important role to play in achieving a net zero carbon emission economy by 2050. Source: BGS © UKRI

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Power and industry are big carbon emitters. Whilst power generation continues to undergo a major shift toward zero emission electricity from renewable sources, heavy ‘foundation’ industries such as steel-making, cement, fertiliser and glass manufacture are more difficult to decarbonise. This is partly because of their high energy intensity and also because carbon is often an integral part of the chemistry of the manufacturing process. Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) in the deep subsurface represents one viable solution to decarbonising these important heavy industries. In UK offshore waters there are major geological formations beneath the seabed which will be suitable for the safe long-term storage of carbon dioxide from our industrial activity, well into the foreseeable future. Another contribution to decarbonising heavy industry (along with some transport and heating solutions) will come from hydrogen. This gas has the potential to deliver the energy intensity needed by industry, but will require major new generation capacity and infrastructure. Utilisation of geological formations presents a safe, secure and cost-effective hydrogen storage option in building regional networks to support zero-carbon industrial hubs.

Heating and cooling of buildings, especially homes presents a major decarbonisation challenge. Improving energy efficiency and insulation is part of the solution. The other key aspect is providing viable zero carbon alternatives to domestic heating based on gas and other fossil fuels. Geothermal heat is one of those alternatives. The subsurface represents very large resource which can, in some circumstances be used to both heat and cool buildings. In parts of the UK underlain by suitable geological formations such as Carboniferous-age limestone, we could tap into deep geothermal resources capable of heating large public buildings and/ or thousands of homes. Many of our major industrial cities are built over or close to abandoned coal mines. These historic underground workings are generally flooded with water which is relatively easy to access from the surface via boreholes, such as at BGS’s Glasgow underground observatory.  This water can be pumped, heat extracted and utilised in nearby buildings and then recirculated back into the old workings.

Transport related emissions are a major contributor to the national carbon footprint. A significant proportion of transport related emissions can be attributed to cars, vans and trucks powered by petrol and diesel engines. All transport systems are material intensive, and as the automotive industry transforms in response to the net zero agenda, so the metals and other materials required to manufacture zero-emission vehicles changes. As a result, demand for previously obscure metals such as lithium and cobalt (used in electric vehicle batteries), rare earths and beryllium (used in vehicle motors and power systems) is growing rapidly. The primary source of these metals is currently material mined from geological deposits in the subsurface. Future supply of these critical raw materials for the manufacture of zero emission vehicles and renewable energy systems will require an approach which combines exploration and mining, alongside the use of metals recycled as part of a more circular economy.

Going underground. In this year of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, the scale of the 2050 net zero ambition is becoming clearer as we face the need to make massive step-changes in decarbonising power, industry, heating and transport. However, through careful scientific research, informed policy and bold technical innovation, we strongly believe that the subsurface will be a major component in achieving this goal.

Andrew Bloodworth
Andrew Bloodworth

Policy director

BGS Keyworth
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