If you live in the UK, you may be confused by the recent announcement by the government that plans for new coal power stations will get the go-ahead - but only if they are fitted with cutting-edge 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS) technology.
You'd be right to be confused - it's very confusing.
The long and short of it is, building new coal power stations here in Britain - whether they are fitted with CCS technology or not - is not a sensible or responsible thing to do. This page tries to shed a little bit of light on the issues around coal power, particularly as it relates to our campaign pledge against new coal plants in the UK.
"Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. Close them." - NASA's Jim Hansen
The trouble with coal is simple.
Coal is the principal cause of climate change, historically responsible for around half of all man-made global carbon dioxide emissions, and about half of all fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions today. While all fossil fuels are releasing hefty amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, coal is the most carbon-intensive. Because it is almost pure carbon, when it is burned it releases more carbon dioxide than any other fuel.
In Britain around a third and in the US around half of all electricity is generated by burning coal. China gets four-fifths of its electricity from coal. In many other countries this figure is even higher. The main reason for this is that coal is relatively cheap and abundant compared with other sources of energy.
“The only practical way to prevent CO2 levels from going far into the dangerous range, with disastrous effects for humanity and other inhabitants of the planet, is to phase out use of coal except at power plants where the CO2 is captured and sequestered." - NASA's Jim Hansen
Here's where it starts to get complicated.
Scientists have speculated that it may be possible to capture the carbon emissions from coal power stations - 'carbon capture' - and stick them back in the ground - 'storage'. Certain geological formations, like depleted oil and gas fields, have the potential to hold large quantities of liquid carbon dioxide for thousands of years.
Because there is so much coal left around the world - with around 850 billion tonnes remaining cheaply accessible - and demand for energy is rising all the time, many people believe that CCS technology is our only hope of preventing catastrophic climate change.
As the UK's Energy & Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband put it in his recent announcement, there is an "international imperative to make coal clean". Ed believes that it will not be possible to persuade China to join a global agreement to reduce emissions unless CCS is a part of that deal.
The upshot is that governments around the world, not just in Britain, are pinning some very heavy hopes onto CCS technology becoming technically and economically viable some time in the near future.
So how are we looking?
Hmm, that wasn't very informative was it.
Perhaps this next coal industry video will explain things a bit more clearly.
Mmm, sexy coal miners. Where were we? Oh yes - what about the actual technology?
I'm not sure I'm learning anything useful from these coal industry videos yet.
Maybe this one will help:
OK. I think I get it.
The big problem with 'clean coal' is: it doesn't exist.
To be completely fair, we should perhaps say it doesn't exist yet. Which is really the point Ed Miliband made in his recent policy announcement. Let's take a look at that in more detail.
NEW COAL IN THE UK AND KINGSNORTH POWER STATION
"There is no alternative to CCS if we are serious about fighting climate change. We need new coal-fired power stations [for energy security] but only if they can be part of a low carbon future. With a solution to the problem of coal we greatly increase our chances of stopping dangerous climate change emissions. Without it we will not succeed." - Ed Miliband, UK Energy & Climate Change Secretary
Ed Miliband has been stuck between a rock and hard place since taking up his position in charge of the newly created Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC).
Between a quarter and a third of the UK's existing power stations are scheduled to close in the next ten years, leaving a so-called 'energy gap' in our electricity demand. As Energy Secretary, this is a gap that Ed clearly needs to plug. But the UK is signed up to reduce its emissions by 80% over the next forty years, with indications being that the power generation sector will be expected to bear the brunt of these cuts, achieving total decarbonisation by some time in the 2030s - effectively ruling out new coal power as a means to plug the upcoming energy gap. As Climate Change Secretary, Ed clearly needs to make sure we stop burning coal as soon as possible.
This is where the idea of 'clean coal' comes to the rescue. Explaining that "the era of new unabated coal has come to an end", Ed announced plans for at least two, and up to four, new coal power stations in Britain - but only if they can demonstrate CCS technology from the outset. This is a significant improvement on the previous policy, which only required new coal stations to be 'carbon capture ready' - a phrase so vague and non-committal as to be effectively meaningless.
Ed Miliband has worked hard to reform British energy policy so that it begins to make sense in the context of the climate crisis, and the urgent need to slash emissions from power generation. Everyone is very relieved that it's not John Hutton in charge any more. Ed is a politican who may actually mean what he says about tackling climate change.
Nevertheless, scratching the surface of the new policy reveals it is much less reassuring than it first appears.
For a start, for most types of coal station, the CCS requirement will only apply to 20-25% of each station's emissions - leaving the other 75-80% to pump into the atmosphere as usual. This is a bit like deciding to carry on smoking, but cutting the end off all of your cigarettes so you inhale less smoke. For every one tonne of carbon captured before 2020, three will be released into the atmosphere.
In theory though, this test phase is only supposed to demonstrate the technology: once it is "independently judged as economically and technically proven" - which the government expects by 2020 - those stations would have five years to 'retrofit' CCS to cover 100% of their output.
Unfortunately, the government's expectation that CCS will not only work, but also prove to be economically competitive before 2020 is not really credible. No commercial scale CCS plant exists anywhere in the world. What if, for whatever reason, it hasn't worked out according to plan by 2025? We will have built the new power stations into our national energy budget and closing them down will be impossible without massive disruption to the UK's energy supply. As George Monbiot put it,
"The government's announcement is cynical and meaningless. It cannot enforce the decision it has just made, and it knows that no one else will. If coal plants go ahead on the condition that their emissions will one day be abated through CCS, the emissions will be a certainty. The abatement will not."
Or as the executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, put it:
“CCS technology is still fraught with uncertainties. If Miliband doesn't show the necessary leadership to completely rule out unabated coal, then all the evidence suggests that's what we'll get.”
The energy companies themselves have basically admitted they do not share the government's optimism about the 2025 cut-off, by asking for a get-out clause. They privately doubt that the technology can be fully implemented in time and want assurances that they won't have to switch off if that turns out to be the case. Without these promises they warn they won't stump up for new power plants. They're not happy about the plans for enforcement of the decision either - they don’t like the idea that the Environment Agency would be the regulator and so they argue that the EA doesn't have the relevant expertise and 'business know-how' to take on such a role.
Then there is the question of who is going to pay for the implementation of the new technology. The power sector has been extremely reluctant to gamble the billions necessary on an unproven technology which will massively increase their operating costs without increasing their energy output. Meanwhile there has been little appetite for finding the money from the public purse. Ed's clever way out of this in the UK has been to propose a carbon levy on consumers, which he says would add around 2% to electricity bills by 2020.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the industry will accept even this: companies like E.ON, who want to build the new power station at Kingsnorth in Kent, are still pushing for government subsidies for CCS. This is not surprising, as some estimates suggest that full CCS will cost up to 75% more than conventional coal-power - meaning electricity generated in this way would not be economically competitive with other sources of energy. By the time CCS is technically feasible at a utility scale - believed by independent experts to be more likely to be 2030 than 2020 as the government 'expects' - solar and solar thermal power generation is very likely to be cheaper.
If it is left to the market alone, CCS does not look like a very good investment, which is why E.ON and friends are so insistent on getting their hands on public money to fund it. But there is a huge question over the wisdom of using massive amounts of limited public funds to subsidize an experimental technology that may not work, and will support the fossil fuel industry in competition against tried and tested, truly renewable power generation using other technologies.
The argument that CCS will be imperative to tackle coal emissions in developing nations seems compelling. But given that the vast majority of expected emissions in 2020 will be coming from coal power stations already in existence or under construction, it is not clear why Britain needs to construct new coal plants of our own in order to demonstrate a technology that must be retrofitted to existing plants elsewhere. Why not test CCS out on the coal power stations we already have - an exercise that would be much more useful in terms of developing transferable technology, and would not require new infrastructure that locks in dependency on coal power for another generation at least?
Finally, there are some technical problems with CCS that must be addressed in any decision about its potential as a solution to the climate crisis.
- Carbon capture itself requires energy, and does not tackle coal mining's fugitive methane emissions (which are huge when it comes to open-cast mining, the cheapest and hence most popular form), or its transport-related CO2. This means only about 60-85% of the associated emissions can be captured. So the best case scenario results in energy generation that produces net emissions around 10 to 40 times those from renewables such as solar and wind.
- CCS also needs 10%-40% more coal to be burnt per unit of energy generated.
- CO2 buried by CCS may leak out slowly over time, raising questions over ownership, liability and long-term efficacy.
- The scale of the operation that would be necessary to turn all coal 'clean' is vast, and would require millions of miles of pipeline to carry the CO2 to its underground storage sites.
- There is considerable uncertainty over what constitutes a geologically suitable site, and over how many of these there may be worldwide - particuarly in the places they would be most needed, like India and China. Britain has a load of empty North Sea oil and gas fields, but other regions of the world may have few or no suitable sites into which to pump the CO2.
- The big problem by 2020 - or if and whenever it is we actually get CCS technology working at a commercial scale - is that the world will have already built nearly all the coal power plants it wants or needs. Most coal emissions between 2020 and 2050 will be coming from power plants already built or under construction. Which means there are high hopes being pinned on the ability to 'retro-fit' CCS to existing plants. Unfortunately, once people really started looking into the potential for this, it started to look a lot less promising. Al Gore recently calculated that CCS would burn about half the energy that China's old-style coal plants produce. "It's hard to see how it's going to work," he said, due to the "parasitic load" - the proportion of the power output that is used up by the capture and storage process. Which will be around 25% on a newish power station, but closer to 50% on a typical Chinese plant. So if you're capturing 60% of the emissions output, but you're burning 50% more coal, then you're capturing 60% of 150%. Which is 40% - and once you get down to that sort of efficiency level, the enormous costs mean that CCS stops being remotely competetive with even the most expensive kinds of renewables, even at today's rates.
Taken together, all of these factors mean that relying on CCS to let us keep burning coal just doesn't look credible. Coal is an inefficient, outdated way to get energy, especially when we have clean, modern technologies like solar and wind which can meet out energy needs cheaply, safely and forever. In Britain, of all places, we need to start phasing out coal altogether as soon as possible.
Anything less than full CCS from day one is unacceptable at this stage in the climate change game, and anyway proven and reliable clean technologies like renewables and efficiency already exist. These technologies could secure our power supplies, cut emissions, create jobs and in the long run bring down fuel bills too.
That's why we want you to join Pete Postlethwaite in pledging to stop a new dirty coal power station from being constructed at Kingsnorth in Kent. Click on the link at the bottom of this page to make your pledge now.