carbon capture

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Image source: Scientific American (courtesy of American Electric Power).

Image source: Scientific American (courtesy of American Electric Power).

Two pieces of news provide evidence of a fightback by coal. American Electric Power’s Mountaineer plant in West Virginia is reporting significant success for its small scale carbon capture project. And the UK has just licensed exploratory boreholes for offshore Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), a woefully under-researched technology that may make CO2 sequestration easier. The scale of the challenge facing the globe’s coal users is enormous but with determined research and development, the fuel may remain usable for power generation in a low-carbon world.

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Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

The government wants to emphasise the affordability of climate change mitigation. It produces low estimates of the cost of low-carbon technologies. In the recent 2009 budget documents, the government estimated a cost of 1% of GDP to meet the tough new 2020 targets. In his pronouncement on carbon capture at coal-fired power stations, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband later said that his proposals will add 2% to electricity bills.

Are these numbers reasonable? Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, says no. In a BBC interview of 26 April, he indicates that he thinks that the cost of reducing the UK’s emissions is much higher than the government indicates but also that the financial implications of not dealing with the climate change threat are far higher than even Nick Stern suggests.

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The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The budget confirmed the acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change‘s recommendation for carbon emissions in 2020. The UK will have to reduce its CO2 output by about 110m tonnes by 2020, equivalent to a 21% reduction on actual emissions in 2005 (and 34% on the 1990 figure). The proposed rate of emissions reduction is far faster than the UK has achieved thus far and the chancellor’s budget shows the government has started to recognise the scale of the challenge.

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The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

E.ON’s £1bn plan for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is waiting for approval from the UK government. Other generators have shifted away from coal. Drax, which owns by far the largest coal power station in the UK, is investing in biomass. Other companies have focused on new gas plants. Why is the world’s largest investor-owned utility pushing ahead with a project to burn coal without carbon capture?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that burning coal to generate electricity is extremely profitable. Very low prices for emissions permits and tumbling coal costs mean that a profit-seeking management team is highly incentivised to try to push for permission to use coal in power stations. This article provides the background calculations for an estimate that the new Kingsnorth will generate an operating profit of about £300m a year if current fuel and carbon prices persist. Additionally, it also tries to show that the cost of fitting CCS equipment and running the plant to capture the large majority of all carbon emissions is likely to add no more than about 1.5p per kilowatt hour to the cost of generating electricity at current coal and carbon prices. This means that a new coal fired power station with CCS may have operating costs only marginally above gas power plants

Nevertheless, E.ON has just asked for government subsidy to install CCS at Kingsnorth from day one. The purpose of this article is to offer an estimate of the maximum the government ought to offer E.ON in order to get it to invest in CCS prior to opening the new power station.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Vattenfall CCS power station

The Vattenfall CCS power station under construction at Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. The main power station can be seen in the background. Image credit: Vattenfall AB.


A powerful US coalition of large industrial companies, power producers, and environmental defence organisations has produced the first sensible plan for incentivising the early introduction of carbon capture at solid fuel electricity plants. The scheme proposed by the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) addresses the most important environmental issue in the world – the burning of coal to generate electricity – in a plausible and coherent way. Coal, which is almost exclusively burnt in power stations or in steel-making, is responsible for about 36% of US emissions. If we can find a way of cheaply capturing the CO2 from power stations and storing it underground, we can then also provide the technology to Chinese and Indian generators.

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Copyright: Joe Gough – Fotolia.com.

The UK government’s enthusiasm for the construction of nuclear power stations is based on a May 2007 consultation document[1] published by the Department of Trade and Industry (now BERR). This paper argued that nuclear offered a financially viable way of generating electricity, broadly competitive with fossil fuels. It correctly pointed out that the cost of nuclear energy is largely determined by how much a plant costs to build, not by uranium prices or by the price of disposing of nuclear waste.

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Renault’s Zoom concept electric car. Image source: Auto Express.

Most major countries in Europe have decided to focus on one or two technologies to reduce carbon emissions. By making concentrated investments in one or two promising areas these countries are likely to achieve substantial cost reductions and rapid increases in deployment. By contrast, the UK is dabbling ineffectually in several areas and achieving little. Despite having large resources of renewable energy sources, the UK’s effort is diffuse, trivial in scope and clearly insufficient. We have almost the lowest percentage of our energy coming from low-carbon sources in the EU.

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Elizabeth Kolbert looked at the Swiss 2,000-Watt Society project in the New Yorker of 7 July. Her interviewees provided estimates of the energy use of the typical Swiss inhabitant. The figures added up to about 5,000 watts. To be clear, this means each person is responsible for about five kilowatts of continuous energy use. This includes home electricity and gas, personal transport, industry, and office. To keep us in the ease and comfort we have got used to we are consuming, directly and indirectly, enough energy to keep two electric kettles boiling continuously, or driving a fuel-efficient car four hours in every day.

This article looks at the composition of energy demand in the UK. The figures are then broken down by sector and by fuel. The numbers are used in the introduction to Ten Technologies to Save the Planet (Profile Books, November 2008), where I try to assess whether we are likely to be able to use technology to reduce fossil fuel demand substantially.

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E.ON's planned Kingsnorth supercritical coal plant
E.ON’s planned Kingsnorth supercritical coal plant

E.ON’s plan to install supercritical coal-burning technology on its Kingsnorth site in Kent was (unsurprisingly) supported by the planning authority. A more interesting question is why E.ON persisted with the application in the first place. Even carbon efficient power stations emit far more carbon than gas plants. A high price of carbon would make the Kingsnorth coal plant uneconomic. The answer to the question must be that E.ON is confident that supercritical coal plants can be economically retrofitted with carbon capture technology (CCS). So even if the carbon price increases dramatically, coal will still be competitive.

E.ON’s US operation is closely aligned with the co-operative FutureGen venture, which plans to build a coal gasification plant in the US within five years. This power station will then capture CO2 and store it in sandstone. FutureGen gasification carbon capture technology is ‘pre-combustion’, unlike the ‘post-combustion’ focus in Europe. US electric utilities are now assuming that coal plants without CCS will not be allowed. But in both the US and Europe there seems to be a prevailing assumption that a $30 per tonne CO2 price is sufficient to cover the cost of CCS technology, meaning coal will eventually be back in the power station mix.

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