Northern Lights is innovating for the future of carbon transport and storage

With the catastrophic effects of climate change knocking at the world’s door, urgent action is needed. Countries and industries are coming together to create economic models that aim to address today’s challenges while providing more sustainable opportunities for growth.

For years Norway’s government has been especially involved in analyzing and investing in forward-thinking technologies and initiatives, not just to address climate problems now, but to envision new industries for the future.

One such project, a 3-year-old partnership called Northern Lights, is a joint effort of the Norwegian government and energy firms Equinor, Shell and Total, each of which has deep roots working with Microsoft. The partnership is seeking to standardize and scale carbon capture and storage, or CCS, across Europe.

CCS has great potential to reduce carbon output, particularly in industries where cutting emissions is more difficult to achieve, and recently the Norwegian government announced an investment proposal in Northern Lights. On Wednesday, Microsoft signed an agreement to explore how it can join the project as a technology partner.

Together, the group will explore how to integrate Microsoft’s digital expertise and work to find ways to invest in the effective development of the project. Microsoft will also look into the of use Northern Lights’ CO2 transport and storage facility as part of its own portfolio of carbon capture, transportation and storage projects.

“This is a challenge that no one government or corporation can solve alone,” says Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer for Microsoft. “We all need to do more, and those of us who can move faster should. We’re excited by the potential of new approaches like the Northern Lights project. Together with our partners we can work to scale the transportation and storage of captured carbon to help achieve the business needs of a net zero carbon future.”

A permanent storage solution for CO2

Northern Lights has been developing a business model that chains together technologies developed for the energy industry across decades, using them in new ways to provide for the effective transportation, receipt and permanent storage of CO2 in a reservoir in Norway’s North Sea.

According to Irene Rummelhoff, executive vice president of Equinor, the idea is to facilitate the capture and transport of CO2 from industrial emissions and store it safely without releasing it into the atmosphere. Upon capture, the carbon is liquified and shipped to a Northern Lights facility near Bergen, where it’s pumped 2,600 meters below the sea floor into the pores of a saline aquifer.

“After 40 to 50 years of offshore drilling, instead of taking something out, we are pushing it back down into the earth,” Rummelhoff says. “This project is proving that we can repurpose oil technology in the area of carbon storage in sub-sea reservoirs.”

The plant can initially process up to 1.5 million tons of liquid CO2 each year, and more than 100 million tons over time. The Northern Lights storage facility has gone from an industrial-scale proof of concept to a mature technology, and recently the Norwegian government announced its proposal to invest 16.8 billion Norwegian Krones (1.55 billion Euros) into realizing the Longship CCS value chain, of which Northern Lights is the transport and storage part.

Adding Microsoft brings a technology partner with a global footprint to complement the energy expertise and resources of the other partners. Microsoft’s role is to explore providing a foundation of technology to innovate on, and to work to find ways to help the group further develop the project.

Bringing an ecosystem of innovation to the challenge

In January 2020, Microsoft made a pledge to become carbon negative by 2030 and to remove from the environment all of the carbon it has emitted directly and through electricity consumption since the company was founded by 2050. But company leaders acknowledged that to achieve those goals, they must bet on technologies that have not yet been developed or that are not yet deployed at scale.

Microsoft’s intent is to work with Northern Lights to create a new business ecosystem around carbon management. The company will explore how a software platform based on open-source principles could help foster the technology and business innovation needed to make CCS a reality at an unprecedented scale.

Microsoft can also implement technology in the storage facility itself, using insights and analytics to unlock innovation and blueprint those solutions for use elsewhere in the world. Microsoft’s vast global partner network can be tapped to offer specialized solutions and expertise to fill in the gaps.

“To achieve a net zero carbon future, companies need to be able to transport and store their captured carbon,” Joppa says. “We hope to enable a large-scale value chain and a transport and storage network where there aren’t yet large-scale carbon storage practices in place.”

Exploring the potential of a new industry

Joppa says that joining the project is a win-win situation that reflects Microsoft’s values while serving the common interests of people and countries worldwide. At this initial stage, Microsoft is evaluating what its investment in the initiative might look like, in terms of contributing resources, people, brainpower, research, technology or a combination of all.

“It will take an extraordinary effort to achieve a net zero carbon future,” he says. “We’re going to have to create technologies that don’t exist today at the scale we need them today. We want to explore how we can connect this carbon chain digitally, and we hope to use the Northern Lights project to help reach our own sustainability goals too. We don’t have all the answers at this point, but that is something that we are agreeing to explore together.”

For the world to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, a huge transformation is required for the business value chain itself.

Top photo: The northern lights over Norway’s Lofoten islands. (Photo by Nutexzles/Getty Images)