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UK: Too little, too late for CCS

THE UK's efforts to become a leader in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology have gathered momentum in recent weeks, as a number of projects come closer to fruition. But their small scale highlights the gulf that remains between what is possible now and the all-embracing measures likely to be called for at this month's Copenhagen climate-change summit (see p4).

The government confirmed in November that any new coal-fired power station in England and Wales needs to incorporate a commercial-scale CCS demonstration covering carbon capture, transport and storage, on at least 300 megawatts (MW) of the plant's capacity. That would cover perhaps a quarter or less of a typical power station's generating capacity. If the trials go well, the government's ambition is to see CCS ready for wider deployment from 2020 and for CCS to be applied to the whole output from any new coal plant constructed from then on. Demonstration plants existing at that time would be required to retrofit CCS to cover their full capacity by 2025.

That approach is in step with the advice of the International Energy Agency, which says in its Word Energy Outlook 2009 that commercial-scale CCS is "a crucial, but relatively costly form of emissions abatement" that must be deployed extensively at coal-fired power stations around the world after 2020 if emissions are to be cut significantly by 2030.

However, the UK government's lofty ambitions contrast starkly with what is happening on the ground, as the sector makes its first tentative steps away from the laboratory to small-scale trials at power stations, backed by government financial incentives.

Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) said in November that it was submitting a planning application to local authorities for a £21m ($35m), trial carbon dioxide (CO2) capture facility at its 2 gigawatt (GW) Ferrybridge coal-fired power station in Yorkshire, northern England. SSE and its partners, including Doosan Babcock, plan to demonstrate carbon capture in a project equivalent to just 5 MW of coal-fired generating capacity. The trial, which will produce 100 tonnes a day of CO2, is scheduled to run from early 2011 until the end of 2012. Meanwhile, RWE npower announced, also in November, that it was putting in a planning application for a 3 MW carbon-capture pilot project at its 1.5 GW coal-fired power plant at Aberthaw, South Wales.

Given these would be the biggest carbon-capture trials to take place in the UK so far – and fairly typical of what is going on around the world at present – the industry has a tough task ahead of it if large-scale CCS is to become a reality in the next decade or so. Not only does the potential for carbon capture to be scaled up need to be demonstrated, but a new batch of CCS-ready power stations need to be built – retrofitting existing stations is now regarded as too complex and expensive – storage sites need to be identified and the infrastructure to deliver the CO2 to them must be put in place.

Environmental groups have also questioned UK energy minister Ed Miliband's plans for regulation of the new regime. "Miliband's recognition that we have to decarbonise the power sector is a step in the right direction, but his delivery plan doesn't go far enough," Greenpeace says. It says the Environment Agency, the body charged with regulating CCS, has not been given sufficient powers to enable it to close power stations that fail to meet the government's targets.

Now the focus turns to the outcome of the UK's demonstration competition, which is intended to stimulate larger-scale demonstrations in the sector by offering around £1bn of government funding to the winner. The energy ministry said in November it had received bids from E.On and Scottish Power to proceed to the next stage of the competition and that contracts for the detailed design stage should be finalised early next year.

However, sector observers say it is difficult to envisage a large-scale demonstration plant being delivered by the government's 2014 deadline and that, following E.On's decision to delay the building of its Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent, southeast England, only Scottish Power has a chance of doing so, at its Longannet plant in Fife, Scotland.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has provisionally selected Powerfuel to receive €180m ($269m) to develop a pre-combustion CCS power station at Hatfield – the only EU funding for a UK project. The firm is negotiating the terms of the funding with the Commission.

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