All new coal-fired power plants to be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology under new government rules

The UK will lead the way in the development and use of carbon capture and storage technology for coal-fired power stations, the country’s minister for energy and climate change has declared. 

Talking to the House of Commons on 23 April, Ed Miliband announced that any company seeking planning approval for new coal-fired power stations would have to commit to retrofitting carbon capture and storage (CCS) across the whole plant once the technology is available. In the same speech he also outlined plans to develop this technology using the extra funding for CCS research announced in the UK’s 2009 budget. 

Miliband acknowledged that coal - renowned as a more polluting fossil fuel than gas -  will continue to play an important part of the UK’s energy provision, but reiterated that ’there is an urgent international imperative for us to make coal clean’. He went on to propose two new conditions that any companies wanting to build new coal-powered power stations must meet in order to gain consent in England and Wales: CCS should be demonstrated on at least 300MW of any new coal-fired power station’s capacity (approximately a quarter of a standard sized plant’s output), and that the company must also agree to fit CCS on the entire plant once the technology is proven.    

Technically and economically

During his budget speech on 22 April, Alistair Darling, the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, pledged ’a new funding mechanism to support up to four CCS demonstration projects, and ?90 million to fund detailed preparatory studies’. The UK previously had plans to run just one of these demonstration projects, as part of a European Commission strategy to encourage around 12 full-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2015. A competition has been ongoing since 2007 to decide which company would run this trial, with the winner expected to be announced in mid-2009. Three contenders remain in the race: E.ON UK, Peel Power, and Scottish Power. There is no word yet how, or if, this week’s news will affect the competition’s outcome.   

Miliband has now added more details to Darling’s plan, saying that the new demonstrations would ’be a mix of pre- and post-combustion’ and would be clustered in regions where they can achieve the greatest emission reductions the most economically, such as Thames, Humberside, Teesside, Firth of Forth and Merseyside. He also suggested this might herald a new future for the North Sea oil and gas industry, capitalising on an abundance of offshore storage sites for CO2. ’This route is right, too, for the British economy, and will enable us to lead the world in carbon capture and storage,’ he added. ’Research suggests that carbon abatement technologies could sustain 50 000 jobs by 2030.’  

Lukewarm response

Green energy experts have cautiously welcomed Miliband’s comments. Stuart Haszeldine, from the Scottish centre for carbon storage at the University of Edinburgh, said that ’this is a big step towards accelerating routine decarbonisation of electricity from 2020, and total decarbonisation by 2030, as recommended by the [UK government’s] climate change committee.  Building new coal-fired power plants without operational carbon capture and a connection to a transport and storage cluster, now becomes unjustifiable.’

Some researchers, however, are concerned about the detail in Miliband’s statement. ’[This] announcement on the CCS scheme has the feel of sleepwalking into oblivion. The fact that there are now apparently four demonstration plants is new but the sizes and timescales lack so greatly in definition that it provides the government with the maximum opportunity to dither for a very long time,’ said Miles Seaman from the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

Others have voiced concerns that the funding mechanism has not yet been thought through. Jon Gibbins, from the Energy technology for sustainable development group at Imperial College London, said ’this is good news, but to make anything happen there has to be an effective way of recovering the costs of any CCS projects.  Otherwise it’s no new coal and no CCS.’

Nina Notman