Sizewell C receives £250,000 direct air capture grant
A consortium led by Sizewell C has been awarded £250,000 by the UK Government to develop plans for Direct Air Capture (DAC) which could be powered by the new nuclear power station proposed for Suffolk. The funds have been provided under Government’s Net Zero Innovation Portfolio which supports the development of low-carbon technologies.
Leading engineers and carbon capture experts at the University of Nottingham, Strata Technology, Atkins, and Doosan Babcock are working with Sizewell C on a design study for a unique DAC system which runs on low carbon heat.
Direct Air Capture involves removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which is then stored so that it cannot contribute to climate change. Some Carbon Dioxide (CO2) can also be ‘recycled’ for other purposes such as conversion into synthetic fuels.
The DAC system being proposed by the consortium will be more efficient than other models as it will require little to no electricity and will be able to use heat at a wide range of temperatures. Nuclear is the cheapest way to produce low carbon heat and its use could significantly drive down the cost of this new technology.
A small-scale demonstrator DAC system would be capable of capturing 100 tonnes of CO2 a year. A scaled-up version powered by Sizewell C with heat pumped to a suitable location would have little impact on the power station’s electricity output and could one day capture 1.5m tonnes of CO2 a year. That’s enough to almost offset the annual emissions of the UK’s rail network and would make Sizewell C carbon negative.
Proposals for the pilot project were submitted by the consortium as part of the Government’s Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) competition, which is aimed at accelerating the development of carbon capture systems. GGR technologies are crucial for helping the UK achieve net zero emissions as they will help to offset the CO2 produced by industries which are difficult to decarbonise, like agriculture and aviation.
All engineering and design activities for the pilot will be carried out in the UK to develop a British DAC technology. Sizewell C is already developing plans for hydrogen production to lower carbon emissions during construction of the power station and to provide fuel for local transport and industry.
Sizewell C’s Finance Director, Julia Pyke, said: “Finding a way to bring down the cost of direct air capture is important to our transition to net zero, and powering DAC with heat from Sizewell C has the potential to make the power station carbon negative. This has exciting potential for our fight against climate change and shows how nuclear can bring even more value to our energy system.”
Energy Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said it is determined to tackle climate change and make it 'win-win' for both our planet and the UK economy. "Today’s major cash boost – targeted at our most polluting industries – will encourage the rapid development of the technologies we need to reign in our emissions and transition to a green economy, one that reduces costs for business, boosts investment and create jobs."
Dr Chenggong Sun, the principal technology investigator at University of Nottingham, said: “University of Nottingham has an international reputation for its research into innovative carbon capture materials and process technologies for both industrial and direct air capture applications. We are delighted that Nottingham’s DAC research has made a vital contribution to the Greenhouse Gas Removal Phase 1 project bid led by Sizewell C. We look forward to working with our industrial partners to deliver a major step towards a market-ready novel DAC technology by 2030.”
Strata Technology’s Managing Director, Roger Kimber, added that Strata can bring its extensive knowledge and experience of carbon capture and pilot scale process development to the consortium, and its team of engineers are excited to be developing a technically and commercially viable solution for direct air capture with its partners.
Cameron Gilmour, VP of Nuclear for Doosan Babcock and SZC Consortium Spokesperson said it is committed to supporting the UK’s green recovery and net zero ambitions.
Atkins’ Managing Director for Nuclear & Power, Chris Ball said: “Industry collaboration and whole system thinking are essential as we work to reach our objective for Net Zero and this consortium positively promotes these core attributes. Atkins is proud to be part of this industry leading initiative and delivering innovation in clean powered Direct Air Capture."
Hinkley Point C expects to hire 1,700 people in the next year, covering construction, welding, electrical and equipment installation and wider support roles. Applicants can register their interest here.
Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins
As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones.
So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?
The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin.
1. Smarter Asset Planning
A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.
With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.
The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.
As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.
2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance
Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.
The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.
3. More Efficient Vegetation Management
Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees.
If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly.
And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.
4. Automated powerline inspection
Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.
However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.
Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.
In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors.
5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response
If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.
And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?
6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders
Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road.
As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.
These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them.