Britain's carbon capture and sequestration experiment

Britain's carbon capture and sequestration experiment

As scientists and now our political leaders insist we ‘go green’ to save the planet, you’d think that coal, the filthiest of all fossil fuels, would naturally be condemned as a relic of the industrial revolution – after all, extracting and burning the black stuff to produce electricity is responsible for nearly a tenth of the world’s total carbon emissions. So why are countries all over the world ready to carry coal into the 21st Century to power our energy future? It’s because they think they’ve found the solution to the problem of coal: Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

CCS is actually an umbrella term for a number of complex processes all designed to ‘clean coal’. This can involve chemically washing coal or turning it into a gas before removing minerals and impurities, or chemicals can be used in the flue (big chimney stack) of a power plant to separate the carbon dioxide. Whatever the method, the result is the same – electricity from coal with fewer harmful emissions. The separated CO2 can then be transported through pipes or in containers and pumped into old oil wells or deep under the ocean floor where it can’t leak into the atmosphere and heat our planet. This process transforms the most damaging fuel into one of the cleanest.

The world needs to tackle emissions from coal, and soon. The United States produces half of its electricity burning coal and China a staggering 80%; it is no coincidence that they are the world’s two biggest polluters. Coal is abundant and relatively cheap to extract and as a result the Independent Energy Agency predict a heavy rise in coal use over the next 20 years – China is building new coal-fired power plants at a rate of two a week. The problem of emissions will only get worse unless coal can be cleaned up.

Why Britain?
But, while the energy production of the United States and China is alarming, it doesn’t explain why Britain is pursuing a ‘clean coal’ future. Having announced a CCS competition in 2007, with a potential prize of £1 billion to fully-fund a demonstration CCS plant, Gordon Brown went further in his latest, and probably final, energy bill by including a fund of £9.5 billion (levied from our electricity bills) to encourage CCS in the UK.

David Kidney, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) tells me that aside from being in the international community’s best interests, “Virtually all of the expert advice available suggests that CCS will be necessary as an option for electricity generation if carbon dioxide emission targets are to be met.” So the Government insists it’s acting on advice, no doubt from the energy corporations like Scottish Power and E.On who are leading the drive for CCS in the UK.
Jonathan Smith, E.On’s Media Relations Manager, told me that to ensure the lights stay on we will need some coal energy. With gas and oil prices becoming increasingly volatile the UK is aiming for a third of its electricity to come from renewables by 2020 and Labour recently announced plans for 10 new nuclear power stations. But, there’s still a problem when the wind doesn’t blow and what to do if the substantial investment for 10 nuclear plants fails to materialise, which is where CCS comes in to play.

There’s money honey!
Companies like E.On are not only concerned about securing a clean energy future for the UK. Smith revealed an ulterior motive: “There’s undoubtedly money to be made from clean coal, if it was perfected by (E.On) then clearly we would be the experts in CCS.”
But it’s not just the energy companies who could profit either, and the scale of CCS could mean new opportunities for the UK economy. Jeff Hardy, from the UK Energy Research Centre, explains: “The supply chain to deliver (CCS) is a very broad one… there will be opportunities for all players, large and small, (in) engineering, chemical, oil and gas companies, compression specialists, gas and fluid specialists, pipeline companies and research expertise.” AEA, an independent energy research group, submitted a report to the DECC in December last year stating that the UK could benefit by £1 billion to £2 billion a year from CCS and other capture technologies from now until 2030, with CCS creating nearly 30,000 jobs in the process.

So, CCS solves the problem of coal. We can reduce emissions, provide everyone with enough electricity and create new jobs and business as well; great, let’s all go home and sit in front of a roaring (coal) fire.

Clean coal?
Of course, it isn’t that simple. “‘Clean coal’ doesn’t exist. CCS technology is often presented as a silver bullet to the problem of emissions from fossil fuel plants. Yet CCS has never been proven at a commercial scale anywhere in the world.”
The Government have tried to allay environmental fears by insisting that any new coal plants must be built ‘capture ready’ with at least a quarter of emissions captured from day one. This isn’t enough for most environmental groups, who claim that the Government’s plans are not strict enough. Martin Cullen from Friends of the Earth says: “The emissions from new coal plants would lock the UK into a high carbon pathway for many decades.”

Environmentalists say that subsidies and investment would be better spent on developing proven renewable technologies.
With nearly £10 billion money invested in the experiment already, and time running to make the UK a leader in carbon capture and, more importantly, to avert catastrophic climate change, the hope is that CCS turns out to be the solution and not a costly, carbon-belching mistake.
(The writer is a Greenpeace spokesperson.)
The Guardian