Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Can coal be made 'clean'?

Taken from Big Issue in the North magazine. Please buy the magazine as it is a good read and helps out people who are working to improve their lives. 

The abandonment of a carbon capture project at a Scottish power station
could finish coalmining in the north, increase unemployment, create chaos in energy supplies and make it more difficult to cut CO2 emissions. That’s the view of Bill Adams, secretary of Yorkshire and Humber Trades Union Congress that represents trade unionists in the Region.

Longannet, in Fife, was set to trial technology aimed at removing or capturing
emissions in coal or gas burning power plants. After processing they would then be transported by pipeline for sub-sea rock burial.

One billion pounds of public money through the Department of Energy and Climate Change [DECC] was available, but according to Keith Anderson, chief corporate officer at Scottish Power, one of three companies  behind the project, they required a sum 50% greater and one that in the current climate the government was unwilling to advance.

The decision is a further blow to any hopes of developing clean coal technology in a long-running saga that stretches back to the 1980s. At that time the National Coal Board’s Coal Research Establishment [CRE] was, according to Dave Feickert, head of research for the National Union of Mineworkers between 1984 and 1993, and who now advises the Chinese Government on mine safety, “the world leader in developing clean coal technology, particularly the pressurised fluidised bed power plant at Grimethorpe. We also had supercritical boiler technology that burnt coal at high pressure but reduced CO2 emissions by at least 20% though increasing thermal efficiency.

CRE had 200 engineers, scientists and technical staff and the electricity industry had its own labs as well. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then John Major shut them down and made everyone redundant. Many went to work abroad.”

No one knows for sure - and in 1987 New Scientist magazine was already casting doubt on whether coal could ever be made ‘clean’ -  what might have been achieved if research had continued. What is though certain is that Britain, like much of the rest of the world, currently still needs a significant amount of coal to keep the lights on. Around 30% of the nation’s electricity is generated from 19 coal-fired stations and five are, as a result of European legislation aimed at cutting CO2 emissions, due to close by 2015.

With coal mines across the north having been closed after the Miners year-long strike in 84-85 then 70% of the 51 million of tons coal currently used in  power stations comes from abroad. Yet there are billions of tonnes of coal reserves underground. 

Adams was hoping to see a lot more of them being used in the future. Like Feickert he accepts that carbon capture and storage “is not a proven technology.” Making him keen to see established a project aimed at de-carbonising one-sixth of the output at Longannet, the UK’s second largest coal power plant.

Now despite Anderson calling the engineering study already undertaken, at an estimated cost of in excess of 20 million pounds “a huge success” it has been abandoned.

“It’s very disappointing” says Adams.  “If we can’t develop this technology then the jobs of miners such as the 800 or so at Kellingley are under threat. We could also extract the coal we have beneath our feet. A successful test could also see new power stations being built, bringing contracts for local suppliers and creating skilled, well-paid work.” 

He’s pleased to see that David Cameron and energy secretary Chris Huhne have promised that £1 billion is still available for new projects but wants “things to move quickly.” Peterhead gas-fired power station in Aberdeenshire is believed to be the most likely site for any future project.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF] this would avoid
trialling the new technology on a newly built coal plant currently being proposed at Huntertston in Scotland. Its spokesperson said “ the work at Longannet has significantly improved our understanding of the technology. It’s testing should continue, but at an already existing site where we can, at the very least, know that during testing it will reduce our green house gas emissions.”

Britain is committed to reducing such emissions by 80% by 2050 and Adams believes that target and keeping the lights on can only be met by pushing ahead on carbon capture and storage. He argues that “the development of renewable energy isn’t going to be quick enough, especially in the next decade or so, to prevent energy shortages and simply switching from coal to gas powered stations isn’t going to reduce emissions. “

The WWF is also keen not to see a switch to gas but believes that much more has to be done to push ahead on renewable sources of energy, which in its wake it argues could create 4.4 million jobs across Europe. Its recently released report ‘Positive Energy’ argues that the 60-90% of the UK’s 2030 electricity demand could be met by renewables, but only if the government sets a legal target at no less than 60% for renewable energy generation to ‘provide certainty for investors.’ Failure to do so argues the WWF would mean ‘dangerous levels of climate change and high energy prices.’

“Both of which I’d like to see avoided” says Adams. “But in a world where coal production is expected to jump from today’s seven billion tonnes to ten by 2030 then I’d like to think we can push ahead on getting this technology right so that we can protect and create jobs here before exploiting what would be a valuable export market.”

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