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‘Making decarbonisation a guaranteed outcome’ – An interview with David Surplus OBE (1/2)



We met with David Surplus, Director of B9 Energy, a business dedicated to the development of innovative renewable energy projects, to find out more about what inspired him to work in this sector, the company’s latest projects, including the ambitious hydrogen project, ‘Belfast Power-to-X’, and why the Cap and Adapt scheme might be key to guaranteeing decarbonisation on a global scale. 

Q1. Could you tell me a little bit about your background and who or what inspires you to work in the renewable energy sector?

By profession, I am a Chartered Marine Engineer. I first completed my degree at Newcastle University, before undergoing a Graduate training scheme with Lloyd’s Register in London which brought me into the marine industry as a Surveyor. From there, I went into the offshore oil and gas industry, and was seconded to the Department of Energy in London to issue certificates of fitness for new offshore oil and gas installations. During this time, I witnessed the scale of the oil industry, and just how much we consume every day. This was in the mid to late 80’s and I had started to read about climate change. Then in 1988, Margaret Thatcher stood up at the Royal Society and announced that we had unwittingly begun an uncontrolled experiment with the earth’s atmosphere. As a chemist, and the first world leader at the time to really make a statement about climate change, it made me question why I would spend the rest of my career being part of the problem when I’d rather be part of the solution.

So, I decided to learn about renewable energy, and soon realised that wind power was going to be the first technology to become economically viable. From there, I transferred from Aberdeen to London, to lead the research for Lloyd’s on the rules and regulations that govern the standards of wind turbine construction. It was here that I met everyone in the wind industry, but overall, it was very slow moving. At the time, Northern Ireland had a non-fossil fuel obligation introduced in line with England and Wales, so I decided to move back to NI and start a company to develop wind farms. That company was and is today called B9 Energy.

Q2. For those who are not familiar with the work of B9 Energy, could you give us an insight into some of the projects you have worked on?

One FAQ I get is what does B9 Energy actually mean? It comes from the English word ‘benign’ meaning ‘not harmful’. So, the name B9 relates to energy that isn’t harmful – renewable energy. At the beginning, we started as a wind farm developer, and constructed 10 wind farms in the North and South of Ireland, developing one in Canada as well. We also had a company called B9 O&M Ltd, which carried out the operation and maintenance of the wind farms. In addition, we maintained 30 odd other wind farms across the UK and Ireland, from the North of Scotland, down to the tip of Cornwall, and we were the biggest independent operator of wind farms in the UK. In 2015, we sold that company, and sold our development company even earlier than that, in 2006, because we recognised that onshore wind farming was becoming less profitable and it was ceasing to be entrepreneurial really.

As entrepreneurs, our goal is to start a company, build it and sell it on. So, with the proceeds of selling our wind business, we got into Anaerobic Digestion and built the big digestor at Granville near Dungannon. It consumes over 90,000 tonnes of organic waste a year, converting it into biogas. The biogas then runs engines on the site. We also have a gas upgrading plant which will separate the biogas into the constitute gases of carbon dioxide and methane. The methane is called biomethane, which is compressed to 250 atmospheres, before being put onto trailers and taken around NI to some of the landfill engines on sites that are running out of gas.

At the moment, we are looking at what we can do with our CO2 because it is demonstrably green in origin. Potentially it can be used to produce methanol if synthesised with hydrogen. Methanol is a precursor for manufacturing plastics so it would help create green plastic. It can also be used for fuels, especially in the marine environment.

One project we developed was ‘First Flight Wind’, an offshore wind farm proposal, but it had to be shelved due to timing, as the development support scheme didn’t suit the project. However, at 600MW, it was an enormous project and there really wasn’t enough load in NI to absorb all the energy. We were also proposing this before the North/South interconnector was certain to be built.  The projections of curtailment for that wind farm were also up towards 30%. So, the turbines were going to be switched off because there was no balancing load. This made us begin to look at energy storage as a new venture, and what is going to be required in order to allow renewables to reach their full potential.

Q3. Is there anything that you are currently working on that could help NI become more self-sufficient in terms of energy and play a central role in this ‘global energy revolution’.

Northern Ireland is going to be dominated by wind, and the technology we think will be the most useful to balance wind farms is the process of electrolysis. Overall, this is a category we are calling ‘Power-to-X’. The ‘power’ refers to electricity and ‘X’ is anything that you can convert electricity in to. So, in the case of electrolysis, the ‘X’ is hydrogen, oxygen and heat. However, the electrolysers actually offer a suite of services around the electrical connection, because when the machines are running as a load on the grid, it can be switched off very rapidly. The modern PEM electrolysers can be switched off in milliseconds, giving us the opportunity to play in the DS3 market.

We can also participate in the capacity market, and unseen really is the reduction of curtailment of windfarms, meaning the income of generators is preserved instead of being diminished because of curtailment. We are in an era now where there is no compensation when turbines are shut off. So, if curtailment is too high, projects will not have sufficient revenue to reach the required return on investment. I have noticed in the Year-to-Date figures after Q3 of 2019, that curtailment and constraint combined was up at 10.6%. So, when you are getting close to the reduction in revenue that puts a viable, profit making wind farm project into a breakeven or even loss-making situation, especially when curtailment increases up to 20 and 30%, it’s a non-starter. As a result, you wouldn’t find anybody really wanting to invest when the revenue is so uncertain.

This then, is a piece of value that we bring to the wind farming industry that we are not directly getting payments for. So, rather than it being in our revenue stack of all things that we can get money for, it goes into our benefit stack, which is all the benefits of the project that we haven’t managed to convert into revenue. When our Power-to-X Projects are proposed, and if they don’t reach the viability criteria and so aren’t investable, then we will speak to the policy makers and show them the benefits that aren’t being paid for and ask them to change the support and taxation landscape, so that we do get it across the line.

So, with Power-to-X, we are beginning with an ambitious project in Belfast – the ‘Belfast Power-to-X Project’, that would produce hydrogen for companies such as Translink and operators of HGV tractor units. Some of the Translink buses will be electric, using batteries, and some of them will be electric using hydrogen fuel cells. It is those fuel cells that we are aiming to provide renewable fuel for. At each step of the way along their decarbonisation transition, we would aim to stay ahead of their growing hydrogen demand by producing more than is needed at any moment in time.  This ensures that the industry is supply led and that decarbonisation is not held up by a lack of fuel. In terms of the oxygen, we had looked around for quite some time to figure out what to do with it, and in the end, wastewater treatment plants provided the best potential solution. Trials have not been completed yet but we hope that by enhancing the aeration process towards oxygenation the aerobic bacteria will do their job of consuming organic material much better and that this will consequently create more headroom in terms of capacity in the plant and thereby enable more sewage to be processed through the plant. Additionally, any money we get from selling the oxygen is money that we don’t have to charge the automotive sector. The waste heat from the electrolyser will be fed into pipelines to supply the domestic, commercial and industrial sectors. This provides the project with a good social dimension because we will be able to supply heat that will go some way to help alleviate fuel poverty.

Overall, I consider Power-to-X to be a very good project as it allows us to bring services to the electricity and water systems alongside providing energy for heating and transportation. Ultimately, the project will stimulate the birth of the hydrogen economy in Northern Ireland and give us a first glimpse of the post carbon fuel era.

Q4. You had mentioned at a recent ‘Climate Provocations Debate’ in Belfast, the Cap and Adapt approach to decarbonisation. Described as a ‘fail-safe approach to tackling the climate emergency’, could you illustrate what its adoption would look like for Northern Ireland?

To date, any declaration of a climate emergency has been met with varied responses, from scepticism on one hand to panic on the other. So, if we expect everybody to voluntarily decarbonise in the way we need them to, then we are just going to end up frustrated. It is uncertain as to what the outcome of all of this is going to be, and that is not acceptable. In order to save the world, we will need to keep the global temperature rise below the 2-degree mark and as close to 1.5 as possible. If we end up at 3 degrees, or 3.8 degrees which is what we are currently heading for, ultimately, we’ve lost and we are handing over a world that is doomed not only for future generations, but the current generation too. This simply cannot be acceptable in a civil society.

What we need to do is take scientists views seriously and make decarbonisation a guaranteed outcome. We need to guarantee that by a certain date, there shall be no more carbon fuel emissions. The only way that I’ve found so far to do that is through the ‘Cap and Adapt’ scheme. Written by a man called Larry Edwards from Alaska, the concept is very simple. Essentially, if we’ve got to reach net zero, then the easiest way to reduce emissions is to shut fossil fuel production off at source.

Cap and Adapt involves a benchmarking exercise at the beginning where you look at two things; the points of extraction of fossil fuels from the ground, and the point of importing them into your region. In terms of extraction, this means oil wells, gas wells and coal mines, and for importing, it means pipelines, coal terminals, oil and LNG import terminals. Importantly, this also includes the embedded carbon of all the products we import. So, if I buy a plastic toy that comes from China, it’s the carbon represented by that item that we are importing that needs to be accounted for and reduced.

Once the benchmark has been established, the points of extraction and import would be progressively switched off over a ten year period say. Every year the fossil fuel cap would be reduced by 10% and every year you would be able to confirm that you are moving along the predetermined pathway towards zero at the end. Because there is less fossil fuel available each year we would simply have to adapt to that reality. This is where the other complimentary schemes such as carbon tax and dividend will be able to incentivise the necessary changes without causing inflationary pressure.

So, what would NI do? Well, most of our fossil fuels are imported. We have natural gas coming in through the Moyle pipeline from Scotland, oil terminals at Belfast Harbour and elsewhere. These would be the points where fossil fuels would be monitored and reduced, while also putting up wind and solar farms to make up for the loss as far as possible. As NI is part of the UK and its signature on the Paris Agreement is through the UK, the UK as a whole would be responsible for doing Cap and Adapt if it chose to. However, having said that, energy is a devolved matter in NI and so there would be some degree of control that the Department for the Economy would be able to instigate, if it thought it was the best approach for NI.

Overall, Cap and Adapt is relatively new and not well known, but this is hardly surprising as there has been so little public discussion about climate action in general. Presently, there is no certainty that we are going to decarbonise at all, and emissions are rising when they should be falling. We simply cannot listen to young people like Greta Thunberg and the climate scientists she is referring us to and defend the lack of action that we are currently showing.

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