Coal - fuel of the future?

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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How much is it going to cost to decarbonise the economy?

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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Budget 2009: Has the government begun to recognise the scale of the challenge?

The chancellor may have been inconsistent, but at least the budget has some incentives to encourage renewable electricity, carbon capture and storage, and the switch to low-carbon fuels.

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Kingsnorth: why does E.ON want to build a new coal plant without CCS?

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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Why might nuclear be necessary?

In the Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argued 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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At last, some good sense on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

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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The fall in the pound's value undermines any financial case for nuclear energy

The UK government’s enthusiasm for the construction of nuclear power stations is based on a May 2007 consultation document 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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Why is the UK so far behind in renewables?

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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UK energy demand

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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Carbon capture at E.ON's Kingsnorth coal plant

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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Biodiesel from algae

AlgaeShell announced an investment in a Hawaii-based plant to make biodiesel from algae. Algae are the most promising route to low-cost fossil fuel replacements. Yields per acre will eventually be a multiple of other sources of liquid fuels, such as maize, wheat and palm oil. The other key advantage of algae is that they can be used to sequester carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion.

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Gordon Brown’s first speech on climate change

Gordon BrownThe environmental community tends to think that Gordon Brown doesn’t understand the complexity and size of the climate challenge. His first speech on the subject gave more detail than expected and reassured some that the prime minister does recognise the severity of the challenge. He moved towards an 80% reduction in GHGs by 2050, but even under optimistic assumptions his plans will not result in emissions reductions on the scale required. All his proposals were pain-free. He does not yet believe that the electorate is ready to face the real challenges of emissions reduction.

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Biochar can sequester carbon cheaply

Amazonian topsoil enriched with charcoalOrganic matter, such as agricultural waste, heated in the absence of oxygen splits into two types of material: a charcoal (biochar), and hydrocarbon gases and liquids. When added to soils, the charcoal can provide a powerful fertiliser. The hydrocarbons can be burnt, either to generate electricity or to power an internal combustion engine. Biochar is exciting growing attention around the world. Charcoal’s ability to improve soils can sometimes be spectacular. But more importantly from a climate change perspective, charcoal is almost pure carbon and is strangely stable in soils. It seems to persist for centuries. Charcoal can therefore offer substantial opportunities for long-term sequestration of carbon. The valuable fuels from the biogases and liquids are also carbon-neutral since they contain CO2 previously captured during photosynthesis. As a third major benefit, soils fertilised with charcoal seem to need less artificial fertiliser, thus saving fossil fuels. Fewer applications of fertiliser would reduce the level of emissions of nitrous oxide, a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas.

Biochar manufacture represents a way of productively storing large amounts of carbon. But the carbon in the charcoal could be burnt to generate electricity instead of being stored in soil. Current emissions trading schemes, such as the European ETS, do not allow sequestered carbon to be considered as equivalent to a reduction in greenhouse warming emissions. This is a mistake that will need to be rectified. It make more sense to use agricultural land to make biochar and biogases/bioliquids than to burn the biomass in power stations. Power stations burning wood benefit from buying fewer emissions certificates and from the renewable energy subsidy, but there is no comparable benefit from storing carbon in the soil. This is an anomaly that should be removed.

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The Treasury's Pre-Budget review

The Pre-Budget review in early October disappointed green activists. Environmental measures formed a small fraction of the government’s initiatives. It doesn’t look as though Alistair Darling sees climate change as one of the priorities of this administration. But there were two important commitments: a revision to Air Passenger Duty (APD) and (via BERR) a competition to run a commercial-scale carbon capture project. The APD proposal attracted most attention. The government intends to change the duty so that it is levied on aircraft movements and not on individual travellers. Commentators, and the two main opposition parties, have long suggested that this would be a sensible change. Carbon Commentary disagrees. The proposed revision cannot be implemented without infringing international treaties on the taxation of air travel. The chancellor’s proposed consultation will eventually conclude that APD should remain substantially as it is now.

In the article, we briefly analyse the effects of APD and also show that the duty imposes an effective tax on airlines that is greater than would be levied if air travel were fully included in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The BERR Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) announcement was worryingly unspecific. It did not even bother to mention a figure for the value of the financial support. It also upset some major companies by only allowing entries for the competition from a limited range of technologies. The government is extremely vulnerable to the charge that it is back in the business of picking winners.

CCS is an extremely important part of any strategy for national reduction of emissions. The UK should be throwing far more money at research and development into the various forms of CCS. The simplest and quickest way to get innovation in CCS would be to include carbon storage as a technology that qualifies under the renewable obligation rules. We need to remove the difference between the financial treatment of renewable power generation and carbon capture. Both achieve the same outcome and both should have the same reward.

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Straws in the wind: The Lib Dems' climate change paper

Both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties have produced position papers on climate change in the last few weeks. The Conservative document is over 500 pages long but contains very few specific proposals. To be harsh, it is little more than a prolonged agonising over whether the climate change problem can be addressed using conventional free-market mechanisms. The Lib Dem paper is a tenth of the length but does contain the outlines of a coherent set of policies. This article analyses the Lib Dem proposals. It shows that the Lib Dems are prepared to use the price mechanism to choke off increasing demand for aviation. The party also contemplates extending the Emissions Trading Scheme beyond the 50% of the economy currently covered. On the other hand, it makes completely clear that it has no intention of raising the prices of energy and fuels to domestic consumers.

Although the party presents itself as the only UK political institution ready to grasp the need for an economy-wide carbon price that will bring down emissions by 30% in 2020, the detailed proposals are far less radical. In the material that follows, I try to tabulate the Lib Dem ideas, focusing on whether they use price, regulatory fiat or pious hope as the proposed means of emissions reductions. As in the Conservative paper, estimates of the costs and benefits of their policies are almost completely absent from the Lib Dem paper. It is a shocking commentary on British politics that no major party is prepared to quantify exactly how it proposes to shift taxes towards polluting activities and away from other sources.

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E.ON's new wood-burning power stations

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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