Kingsnorth

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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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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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Do dedicated biomass electricity generating plants make financial sense?

E.ON UK has recently announced a plan to build a second power station using 100% energy crops as fuel. The first investment – a £90m power plant at Lockerbie in Scotland – will open within the next few months. The second plant, still only in the planning stage, will be in Sheffield on the site of a previous generating station. Both power plants will use wood from forestry and specially planted willow but Sheffield will also burn waste wood from other sources, such as industrial pallets. These are the first two large-scale plants in the UK if we exclude the ill-fated Arbre plant of several years ago. (Arbre was an extremely advanced wood chip gasification plant built in Yorkshire. It was never fully commissioned.)

By the standards of the electricity industry, the E.ON investments are tiny. The proposed Sheffield plant has a price tag of £44m compared to £1bn for E.ON’s intended investment in the new super-critical low(ish) emissions coal power plant at Kingsnorth in Kent. Nevertheless, Lockerbie and Sheffield do appear to make good financial sense, at least in part because of the revisions to the renewable energy subsidy scheme announced in the government’s June 2007 Energy White Paper.

This article looks at the prospective financial return from operating a power plant burning wood and other energy crops.

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