A report from the Environmental Audit Committee has called on the UK government to set a deadline for coal fired power stations to either adopt carbon capture and storage technology or face closure. How realistic is this?

BY Heather Johnstone

The Environmental Audit Committee, an influential parliamentary body, has published a report that strongly urges the UK government to set a deadline for all coal fired power stations be equipped with carbon capture ad storage (CCS) technology or face closure.

According to the report, the government cannot rely on the carbon price alone to create the incentives necessary to drive the development and deployment of CCS. By setting a deadline, and making its intentions clear, says the committee, it will send a vital signal to the power generation industry about the future of coal and the importance of developing and retrofitting CCS.

The committee also expressed concern that the UK could become “locked-in” to high levels of emissions for decades because of the country’s renewed interest in new coal fired powered generation, and concluded that without such action the government would “be unlikely to meet its own carbon reduction targets” – a 60 per cent cut by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.

If the committee’s recommendation of a deadline is implemented, without installing CCS Drax, the UK’s largest coal fired power plant, would have to close Source: C.Webb
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The government is currently debating whether to give the green light for German utility major E.ON to build a controversial new coal fired power station at its existing Kingsnorth site. If it receives approval it will be the UK’s first coal fired power station in 20 years.

The new station will be a high-efficiency supercritical power plant, producing lower emissions than the UK’s existing subcritical fleet, and will be designed to be ‘CCS ready’, so that CCS can be retrofitted at a future date once it is proved to be technically and financially viable.

The Committee considered the definition of ‘CCS ready’, and concluded that there was no guarantee that a plant approved on this basis would be willing or able to retrofit CCS once the technology had been demonstrated on a commercial scale. Without a deadline for the retrofitting of CCS, it believes that planning permission granted on the condition of CCS readiness is meaningless.

In the wake of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, a group of leading British scientists from hallowed institutions such as Imperial College London and Cambridge, have urged the UK government, in an open letter, to deploy CCS technology as quickly as possible, warning that unless it acts with urgency, it risks losing a world lead in carbon capture technology to other countries, such as Canada and Germany.

The scientists were highly critical of the government’s slow progress in furthering CCS development and describe the government being “paralyzed by consultation”. They want the government to act on its promises to be the ‘global leader’ in developing the, as yet unproven, CCS technology. More than five years after promising an ‘urgent detailed implementation plan’ for carbon capture in its 2003 Energy White Paper, the government intends to help fund one small-scale project due to be operational by 2014.

Although they acknowledge that the competion is a positive step, they remain unconvinced as to how a single plant will kick-start a global industry or even position the UK as a global leader in this technology.

All this leads to the question: Is it is realistic for the UK government to set a deadline for the implementation of CCS in the power industry? This answer is probably no, when you consider that the UK is forecast to face a 20 GW power gap by 2016 as its least efficient coal stations and nuclear reactors are decommissioned, plus uncertainties still remain over the commercial viability of CCS. In his keynote speech at COAL-GEN Europe, Dr John Topper, head of the IEA’s Clean Coal Centre, predicted that it could be between 10 -15 years before carbon prices rise to a point that makes CCS economical.

Although the economics of CCS still do not add up, on the technology side a great deal of development is in progress, especially on the capture of carbon with a number of leading OEMs keen to demonstrate their technologies.

Dr Topper said the EU must offer incentives to enable CCS technologies to be demonstrated to a point where they become commercially deployable. Without subsidies, which supporters say would be comparable to the subsidies received by onshore wind, CCS is doomed. His call was echoed by Patrick Clerens, secretary general of the European Power Plant Suppliers Association, who said that it was imperative for the EU to provide more funding, to enable a greater number of demonstration projects of promising CCS technologies to be conducted.

It will be interesting to see if the UK government considers the recommendation of the Environmental Audit Commission, and whether the EU takes heed of the growing chorus for CCS research and development to be subsidised.