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Carbon cross roads

Installing carbon capture and storage technology on fossil fuel burning power plants could be a quick and easy way to reduce overall CO2 emissions post-Copenhagen. Ed Owen reports.

December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen could push a theoretically simple way of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning power stations.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) would allow plants fuelled by coal, gas or oil to continue producing energy but would divert the CO2 away from the atmosphere − a neat way to continue producing electricity while reducing CO2 emissions to meet agreed targets. However, development of the technology needs to be greatly speeded up.

Climate change research suggests emissions of greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution have already raised the planet’s mean temperature. This will continue unless production of CO2 is reined in.

“We have the skills and expertise to deliver solutions. All we’re waiting for is the government to take the lead.”

ICE vice president Geoff French

Next month’s Copenhagen conference aims to secure international agreements to reduce overall emissions, as well as discussing the latest in carbon-reducing techniques. CCS could have great impact in the UK, where the bulk of electricity production comes from fossil fuels − primarily gas (40% of overall production), but also coal (33%).

Burning coal and gas keeps the lights on but emits vast quantities of CO2 − 35% of the nation’s total emissions. One solution is to build power plants that do not produce CO2, renewable or nuclear plants for example.

However, the first new nuclear power stations are at least eight years away. Renewable sources can also play a part but they currently produce only 3.5% of the country’s needs.

In a CCS plant, before CO2 is released, it could be caught and stored somewhere safe − under the North Sea, for example − a neat trick that would allow Britain the time to develop both a new nuclear programme and accelerate the roll out of renewables.

Lagging behind

The problem is that CCS remains untested on a large scale, although small plants have been working since 2000, and a CCS site is actually under construction at Longannet in Scotland.

Nevertheless, Britain is beginning to lag behind other nations in developing the technology. According to a recent report published by the ICE (NCE 29 October), the government should set a clear strategy to help ensure Britain becomes a world leader in CSS and also meets carbon reduction targets of a 20% cut in emissions, compared to 1990, by 2020.

ICE vice president Geoff French says: “We have the skills and expertise to deliver solutions. All we’re waiting for is the government to take the lead.”

“We are at a cross roads in developing CCS in the UK. We are ideally placed in terms of geological storage to develop CCS at a commercial scale.”

Jeff Chapman, Carbon Capture and Storage Association

Chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association Jeff Chapman agrees: “We are at a cross roads in developing CCS in the UK. The potential benefits, both financial and in terms of decarbonising our electricity supply, are massive and we are ideally placed in terms of geological storage to develop CCS at a commercial scale.

“We led the world in developing wind power but lost out to other countries. Let’s not let CCS go the same way.”

However, there is a belief that the initiative has already been lost as China − a key market the UK could have exported CCS technology to − has already leapfrogged the UK in developing trials.

University of Edinburgh professor of CCS Stuart Haszeldine says the UK had high hopes for CCS a few years ago. “The regulation is all in place − to score the government here, I would give 9 out of 10. But for engagement, I would give 1 out of 10 − very little is going on.”

Raising ambitions

Haszeldine says the idea for a consumer levy added to consumer bills to directly fund CCS technology would work well, as it would give CCS incentives similar to feed-in tariffs enjoyed by renewable energy producers. But this requires new legislation to be possible. If the Green Energy Bill, which could pave the way for incentives for renewables and CCS does not pass this parliamentary session, then the whole programme will slip by a further 18 months to two years, he says.

“We have to build a plant, and to do this we need to raise our ambition by an order of magnitude,” he says.

Already all new coal plants must be designed to have CCS retrofitted, but gas plants are exempt. Haszeldine says this is simply a disincentive to build new clean coal plants because the additional costs are prohibitive, and developers will simply revert to gas-fired plants.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) plans to build “up to four” demonstration CCS plants by 2015, but Haszeldine worries that this target is simply too ambitious without more engagement.

“We have to build a plant, and to do this we need to raise our ambition by an order of magnitude.”

Stuart Haszeldine, University of Edinburgh

The EU is also pushing for CCS plants and just last month a power station at Hatfield colliery near Doncaster became one of six projects across the Union that won a share of a €1.05bn (£935M) pot to develop a working plant.

Adviser to the European Commission’s energy and climate change department Pierre Dechamps says: “The EU estimate is that £11.65bn must be spent on CCS over the next 10 years.”

He adds that £178M of European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EUETS) allowances had also been available for developing CCS technologies.

While developers could wait to sell these allowances in the hope that the price of carbon increases, and so too the value of the allowances, Dechamps says holders wanted to sell the allowances now to have a secure pot of cash.

“No one was willing to sit on the allowances,” he says. “We are hoping for the value to go up, and there is a 90% chance of this, but they could go down”, clearly indicating the market’s desire for certainty.

Haszeldine says: “CCS can be globalised and can make a real difference. We should have done this [developed CCS] 10 to 15 years ago. But now, there is no immediate benefit to not burning fossil fuels.”

Copenhagen change

This could change at Copenhagen. DECCs policy adviser Martin Deutz says: “We have an agreement that CCS should be taken to Copenhagen and incentivised as part of the deal.” Should this happen, then CCS may finally be given the push it needs.

French says: “Launching CCS on a commercial scale will require it not only to be proven technologically but also to be economically viable. While reliance on carbon fuels is still a reality globally, CCS technology could be a very lucrative venture for the UK economy.”

Chapman says that while the UK waits for incentives to filter through, other countries are simply getting on with developing the technology. “The first real projects are going to be in the unlikely United Arab Emirates and China.”

As well, he says more investment was needed to get CCS off the ground. There is a “balance sheet black hole for companies. Attracting CCS when they do not know where the money is coming from is unacceptable”, he says.

He says even the EUETS incentive scheme “would not deliver the large-scale capital expenditure, and we don’t know what will.”

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