Doosan Power Systems’ chief executive Jean-Michel Aubertin talks about his carbon capture and storage (CCS) ambitions, running the risk of having government funding scrapped, and how Fukushima has not dented his nuclear expectations.

Kelvin Ross, Deputy Editor

For Jean-Michel Aubertin, running Ferrybridge will reveal “everything you need to know about running a CCS plant”

Jean-Michel Aubertin, chief executive of Doosan Power Systems, was in upbeat and cheerful mood when he met PEi this month.

And he had good reason to be. I spoke to him minutes after he had taken part in the official opening of Ferrybridge Carbon Capture plant in Yorkshire, which is the largest of its kind not just in the UK but the whole of Europe.

UK-based Doosan Power Systems designed, built and commissioned the facility, integrating it into an existing coal fired plant that provides 5 per cent of the UK’s total electricity.

Aubertin was emphatic about what the opening of Ferrybridge meant, not just to Doosan, but to the rest of Europe’s carbon capture and storage market.

“You have a lot of pilot schemes in the world, but this one is a very good representation of what bigger carbon capture plants in the future could be,” he said. “The technology has already been validated in laboratories: this plant will be used to validate the operations in order to optimise the way it works and optimise power consumption.”

Hard cash is ‘the key issue’ in ccs

But the greatest hurdle for companies trying to advance the CCS market is not technology but hard cash, he said. “The real issue, at the end of the day, is how much is it going to cost? And how much is it going to cost is very much linked to how much power it is going to necessitate. Running this type of plant shows you everything you need to know about running a CCS plant.”

He said it was also significant that Europe’s first operational, integrated carbon capture plant should open in the UK. “In a way, the UK is in a unique strategic position. It is one of the very few European countries that can do offshore storage very easily.

“For example, in Germany, they are faced with onshore storage, and onshore storage faces a lot of public resistance, because you have the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome. In the UK you do not have this component because we go for offshore storage.”

He added that Ferrybridge was fundamental to pushing the case for CCS funding at government levels, particularly during this time of economic crisis.

Asked whether he thought there was a risk that funding for CCS – and also for subsidies of renewable energy sources – might be suddenly withdrawn by some cash-strapped governments, he said: “If you speak in terms of risk, then yes the risk is there.”

He said that at a time when governments were having to tighten their purse strings, there was “a natural trend” for politicians to want to pull the plug on some funding.

But he stressed that those same countries had little choice but to back renewables and schemes such as CCS if they wanted to be – and be seen to be – part of the wider fight against climate change. “The fundamental point is, if we want to limit the rise in temperature – because of the fact that coal overall will remain the most used fuel in Europe – it is now that we have to do something. It is absolutely essential that the effort is done now.”

Fukushima’s impact for Doosan Power Systems

Aubertin has now been in the chief executive’s chair at Doosan Power Systems for two years. Anyone in such a top job will expect to adapt to changes in their market, but he couldn’t have anticipated how this year’s events at Fukushima – and their knock-on effect on the nuclear policies of Germany, Italy and Switzerland – would tilt the power industry on its axis.

Back in July PEi spoke to him about what effect he thought the disaster in Japan and the decision taken around Angela Merkel’s ministerial table would have on the global power market.

He said then that “the Fukushima incident will not change that much the long-term trend to have significant development of the nuclear industry, simply because in several countries of the world you definitely need to have these nuclear plants. The only thing is that people will pay a lot of consideration now to checking the safety of the plants, the reliability of the plants. But it will not change the long-term trend to increase nuclear plants.”

Several months on from those comments, it looks like he was right, with China and India leading a new charge towards building more reactors. And what effect has Fukushima had on Doosan Power Systems?

“Quite minimal,” he said. “In the UK, after Fukushima of course people have asked questions, but the UK has decided to maintain its reliance on nuclear for a part of its electricity.”

Doosan’s nuclear business is based around maintenance work on existing nuclear plants, and working with joint venture partners – such as EDF at Hinkley Point – on projects for Britain’s proposed fleet of new build facilities. “So we expect our portion of nuclear activities to grow,” says Aubertin confidently, adding that globally, “nuclear will remain a significant portion of the portfolio. I don’t think nuclear will disappear.”

Ferrybridge carbon capture plant was described as a “milestone” by UK energy secretary Chris Huhne

What does he think about the German government’s decision to withdraw from domestic nuclear power? “I think that the weight of the Greens in Germany is pretty high and it has always been a country where nuclear has been under pressure from the environmentalists. I think the decision – right or wrong – is a fundamental choice of the type of society that the German people want to live in.”

So what next for Aubertin and Doosan Power Systems? “We are growing the company by acquisitions in particular,” he said. “At the same time, the environment is changing and this means adaptation of our product portfolio. We are spending a lot of time on export activities and this is why developing technologies, and demonstrating these technologies, in our own country is essential.”

And this brings him back to why he is in Ferrybridge. “A company that tries to export without having homeland reference cannot be successful. This is true in any business.”

Ferrybridge carries CCS torch

Ferrybridge Carbon Capture plant was opened by UK energy secretary Chris Huhne on 30 November.

The plant – built by Doosan Power Systems and Swedish renewables company Vattenfall – bridges the gap between the various pilot-scale trials that are underway and the commercial-scale demonstration projects envisaged by the UK government, as it captures 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide per day from the equivalent 5 MW of coal fired power generating capacity.

And there’s a lot riding on the plant – following the scrapping last month of the Longannet CCS project in Scotland, Ferrybridge will be the litmus test for carbon capture schemes not just in the UK, but throughout Europe.

Huhne called the opening of the plant a “milestone” and said it was “a critical bridge to the long-term carbon capture ambitions” of the UK. He added that the Longannet outcome had been “disappointing, but we learned a lot” and described Ferrybridge as now the “flagship project”.

Ian Marchant, chief executive of SSE (formerly Scottish & Southern Energy), said another CCS facility the company is developing in Peterhead, Scotland, is “completely dependent on the learning” from Ferrybridge.

“This is the future of energy… this is real-world stuff in a real-world power station,” said Marchant, who explained that the idea for the project was born out of a discussion in a pub between himself and Doosan’s technology director Mike Farley.

“The development of viable carbon capture technology is central to the UK’s climate change and energy security objectives,” he said. “We believe projects such as this will be absolutely crucial in establishing when and how the technology can be developed. What we have here today at Ferrybridge will provide an invaluable source of reference and learning for the industry as a whole.”

Vattenfall vice-president Karl Bergman said Ferrybridge would offer “valuable insights on how carbon capture can be moved forward, as well as to validate our performance from an R&D perspective”.

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