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The UK could be at the forefront of the green industrial revolution with carbon cluster plans – and here’s why

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If you open a bottle of anything – whether it’s wine, water or soft drinks – during the festive period, there’s a good chance the glass came from the Encirc factory in Cheshire.

Here on the banks of the Mersey you will find one of the largest glassworks in the world. They take sand from Norfolk, sodium carbonate created from the salt beneath the ground. Cheshire countryside and a lot of recycled glass and throw it into two of the largest glass furnaces in the world.

There, in the furnace, at temperatures of around 1,600 degrees Celsius, the sand melts and becomes a liquid river of molten glass. This is a chemical reaction that humans learned thousands of years ago, but here in Encirc it is carried out on a gargantuan scale.

This factory alone produces two billion bottles and containers a year, a difficult figure to process, until you realize that it accounts for around 40% of all bottles of wine consumed in the UK.

This actually includes a significant proportion of all the New World wines we consume here. Above all, the wine of Australia, California And Chile doesn’t arrive pre-bottled, but in large bags inside shipping containers, which are then emptied into metal vats at Encirc, from where they are pumped into bottles made here in the UK.

It’s an extraordinary site, a place that says a lot about both our appetite for liquids (alcoholic or not) and our ability to transform raw materials into sophisticated products.

The struggle to reach net zero

But turning sand into glass is an extremely energy-intensive process. Some of the heat in the oven can be created by electrical elements that heat the bottom of this enormous oven. But glassmakers like Encirc say it’s impossible to do what they do – make glass on a large scale – without lighting that furnace with a very hot flame.

At the moment this flame is produced using methane – natural gas – with the consequence that this glassware produces a lot of carbon dioxide. And even if you could find a way to operate their furnace without an open flame, it would still produce a significant amount of CO2, since some of it comes from the chemical reaction when sand turns into glass.

In short, this glassware is a pretty good illustration of the difficulty of achieving net zero emissions. Much of this country’s energy consumption can be shifted from fossil fuels to green electricity – whether it concerns vehicles or domestic heating. Sometimes the cost will be high; Sometimes, in the long run, going green will cost less than the status quo.

But for a handful of major industries, it’s much more difficult. Glass manufacturing is one of these industries. You can run small ovens on electricity, but not the big ones you need to power a huge glass container factory like this.

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This is why they are looking for another alternative. The most obvious route to allow this plant to decarbonize is to replace these methane flames with hydrogen flames, then collect all the CO2 coming out of the chimney and sequester it underground.

And it turns out that the technology is almost there. We know how make hydrogen both natural gas and electricity (the former always involves some carbon emissions; the latter is extremely expensive, so these options are not without their problems). We know how capture carbon dioxide.

But there are a few issues that have historically deterred companies like this from taking the plunge. The first is that it makes no economic sense. Capturing carbon is expensive, so why do it when it’s cheaper to pay carbon credits and continue burning gas?

Location, location, location

The second is that the infrastructure is not there yet. Right now, if you collect carbon dioxide from your chimney, you have nowhere to put it. Someone needs to install the pipes leading to the spent gas tanks under the sea, where we might be able to store it. It’s also expensive.

All of this brings us to one of the least discussed, but arguably most important, topics of the green energy transition: clusters. In short, if companies like this glassmaker decide to go green, it will be much more likely to happen if they can do it alongside other heavy industry players.

Look at the geography of UK industries and the idea makes perfect sense. Many of the country’s biggest polluters are clustered relatively close together on the coast. Next to Encirc you will find one of the largest oil refineries in the country, as well as the Inovyn chemical plant (part of Ineos), not to mention a major gas-fired power plant and, a few kilometers further afield, in north Wales, a cement manufacturer.

All of these businesses have large energy demands. They would all benefit from either carbon capture or hydrogen. Look a little into the future and you can imagine a world in which they share pipelines that remove carbon and deliver hydrogen.

How to achieve this?

But how to create these clusters? How to finance them? How can we coordinate companies that all want to make a profit while respecting their commitments to reduce or eliminate their carbon emissions?

It’s a question that no one has yet been able to satisfactorily answer, but whoever does will have the most valuable thing: a plan for how to decarbonize the trickiest part of the global carbon budget.

And guess what: it turns out that the UK is ahead of most other countries in the world in planning its cluster project. It now has detailed plans for how to finance, build and manage a series of major clusters: one around the Encirc factory (the Net Zero North West cluster plan), another in the Tees Valley (Tees Valley Net Zero), as well as plans. for Scotland, for the Humber, for the Black Country and South Wales.

An area in which the UK is truly a leader

Thanks in part to government funding, which began in 2019, Britain’s cluster expertise is widely admired. While the United States is widely considered to have taken the lead in industrial decarbonization, thanks to its enormous Inflation Reduction Act set of grants, Americans – and many Europeans – regularly travel to the UK to understand how to create clusters.

There are many areas in which British politicians claim (with little basis) to be world leaders, but here is one area in which they actually have globally unrivaled competence. However, government funding for the clusters comes to an end in March, and those who work here fear this is another area in which the country is losing its initial lead and soon falling behind.

While the Cheshire cluster appears likely to become a physical reality, with companies soon to lay the pipes that will connect the projects to hydrogen and carbon dioxide lines, those in the Black Country and elsewhere are much less advanced.

It’s something to ponder while you have a drink this holiday season. It is tempting to assume that Britain no longer gains much. However, visit factories like Encirc and you realize that this is very far from the mark.

And it is possible that this country, which brought the industrial revolution to the world, will be at the forefront of managing the green industrial revolution. In a few years, this glass could be truly low-carbon – perhaps in due time it could be carbon-free. But it will take a lot more work – particularly on clusters – to make it a reality.

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