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Return Of King Coal?

March 1, 2006 6:00 PM
By Rebecca Pool in IEE Review
China’s new Wangqu power plant will be an example of ‘clean’ supercritical coal-fired generation

China's new Wangqu power plant will be an example of 'clean' supercritical coal-fired generation

Rebecca Pool investigates the case for clean coal in the coming UK energy White Paper - In his State of the Union Address this year, US President George Bush vowed to replace more than 75% of his nation's oil imports from the Middle East by 2025, by pouring nearly $1bn into an 'Advanced Energy Initiative'.

While this drive includes nearly $200m funding for wind and solar generation, it leans heavily towards coal power. A hefty $281m is allocated to develop clean coal technologies - topping up the $2bn provided over the past decade - with $54m set aside for the 'Future-Gen Initiative', the US zero-emissions coal plant project incorporating carbon capture and storage.

Across the Atlantic, a different story is unfolding. The UK consultation document 'Our Energy Challenge: Securing Clean, Affordable Energy for the Long Term', reiterates the UK government's commitment to the key priorities it laid out in the 2003 Energy White Paper - namely renewable energy and energy efficiency - but points to new challenges.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks highlights the evidence of the adverse impact of climate change as well as the UK's net gas, and imminent net oil, imports. Finally, he points to the nation's soaring energy prices. "For some big industrial consumers, [this] has caused real difficulties," he says.

So how has the UK power industry reacted? Right now, organisations, businesses and research institutions are busying themselves preparing their responses to the consultation in the hope of helping to shape the government's energy policy. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, two industry sectors are being heard loud and clear.

Nuclear power, for one, has hardly left the headlines since the consultation launch. Shunned in the 2003 Energy White Paper due to 'unattractive economics', the consultation wishes to re-examine the technology in light of recent energy price rises. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Industry Association is seemingly playing it cool, saying: "Nuclear can provide a large-scale, reliable source of baseload electricity in a mix with indigenous renewable sources, coal, gas and oil from diverse sources." However, as BNFL energy unit director, Richard Mayson, points out: "This looks like the best opportunity for new nuclear build for decades."

At the same time, the British Wind Energy Association is campaigning for wind and renewables to be "at the heart of the Energy Review", with chief executive Marcus Rand commenting: "This review must be as much about delivering the potential of renewables as it is about deciding on new nuclear." And, pleasingly for the renewables sector, reassurance comes from Wicks. "I'm aware that nuclear dominates the headlines…but this is my Energy Review," he asserts. "I may be nuclear-neutral but I am not renewables-neutral; this sector needs to carry on engaging constructively… there is everything to play for."

Fossil fuels account for almost 90% of the growth in energy demand between now and 2030

Fossil fuels account for almost 90% of the growth in energy demand between now and 2030

But what has happened to President Bush's favoured option? Industry players from the clean coal sector are making valid arguments for their technology. Highlighting a potential 18GW to 29GW generation deficit by 2015 due to coal and nuclear plant closures, spokespeople from energy business Mitsui Babcock make a compelling case for clean coal technologies.

"The UK is an island floating on coal," says chief operating officer Iain Miller. "It's pointless putting our industry at risk by cutting carbon emissions through coal reduction when the UK accounts for around 2% of global emissions."

Backing his comments, former UK energy minister Brian Wilson added: "At the moment, 34% of UK electricity comes from coal. If it disappears in the next 20 years we're in a dire situation. The real question is how to burn it."

To this end, Mitsui Babcock has a plan. In the short-term, advanced supercritical boilers and steam turbines could be retrofitted to existing plant to extend operating lives by 30 years and cut CO2 emissions by around 23%.

"The US talks about building new plant from 2020, but we're talking about retrofitting existing plant now or we won't hit our 2060 carbon dioxide emissions targets," points out Dr Mike Farley, director of technology policy.

The business also makes a case for twinning the retrofits with biomass co-firing to drop emissions by a further 20%, bringing total CO2 emissions down to around 450g/kWh, on a par with combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs). Such a measure would also go some way to relieving the nation's reliance on gas imports.

However, such an approach only partially solves the problem of emissions; the next stage is carbon dioxide capture and geological storage, which could reduce emissions by up to 95%.

Mitsui Babcock claims that two key capture technologies - amine scrubbing and oxyfuel firing - could be available on the required scale and at an acceptable cost within a decade. It also asserts that these technologies are crucial to ensuring a range of energy supplies in the short-term. "Nuclear generation can't be built quickly enough to ensure diversity," adds Farley.

Looking at the issue of cost, the company touts a figure of 3.5-4.3p/kWh for using amine scrubbing or oxyfuel firing with advanced super-critical boiler turbine plant, inclusive of carbon capture, but not storage. That is admittedly significantly higher than the 2.0-2.5p/kWh quoted for nuclear generation, but the business says that even with storage, costs will be lower than those for wind, marine and solar power.

But what about storing carbon underground? While Farley points to a range of storage projects taking or due to take place, he also highlights that many new plants fitted with carbon capture capabilities will be built before storage is available commercially.

In addition to the storage issue, critics of clean coal point out the leakage risks of pumping carbon dioxide underground. But perhaps this is where the development taking place across the Atlantic could step in.

While George Bush is not renowned for his global outlook and green policies, could the billions poured into carbon capture and storage be his environmental legacy to the world?

  • David Goodall's note to reader - this article demonstrates the need to consider clean-coal energy as part of any UK energy review and for one simple reason "The UK is an island floating on coal" and we must use all the natural resources this country has to offer.