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Can carbon capture make coal king again?

Richard Moss | 13:55 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

A digger moves coal.

Could clean coal be the key to our future energy needs?

With grave doubts about the future of nuclear power, there may now be renewed focus on alternative ways of supplying our future energy needs.

And one option takes us firmly back to the region's past - coal.

But 21st Century coal also needs something new to make it environmentally-acceptable in an age where global warming is a big issue. It needs carbon capture.

This is a technology that would see the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants fed into rocks under the sea to avoid it being pumped into the atmosphere.

Billions of pounds of funding are available to schemes which could develop carbon capture and storage technology.

And at least two of those bidding for the money are from the North East.

One bid has come from a consortium which includes Alcan in Northumberland, which is looking to cap the existing power plant at its smelting works.

But another is for a new coal-fired power station in Teesside.

If the bidders can make carbon capture work, it could create valuable jobs and even eventually see the re-opening of coal mines in the UK.

It could also help plug the energy gap that will develop as old nuclear and coal-fired stations shut.

But some believe that is a big if.

Jonathon Porritt

Green campaigner Jonathon Porritt believes carbon capture will not plug the UK's energy gap.

The Politics Show has been talking to environmentalist Jonathon Porritt. He used to advise the last government.

He believes we are already a long way behind China in developing the technology, but he also doubts that carbon capture can work.

And he isn't alone in that. The Green Party believes it is an unproven technology which might leave future generations with a legacy of carbon dioxide that could leak into the atmosphere or the seas.

It does not want to see any development encourage nations to mine and burn more coal.

And even if it is achievable, critics point out that it is not cheap - adding between 20% to 30% onto the costs of generating electricity according to some estimates.

Instead, many environmentalists would prefer to see the focus on renewables and energy conservation in homes and businesses.

But the search for solutions to our energy needs has never been more complex.

Jonathon Porritt, who has always been opposed to nuclear energy, also thinks the last week's events have put the last nail in the coffin of plans for new power stations in Britain.

He believes the crisis in Japan will force any nuclear power station to be loaded down with even more expensive safety devices to reassure the public.

That will make them even more uneconomic, and make it even less likely that private investors will fund them.

And as the Government says no public subsidy will be available for new nuclear, the future could be bleak.

So there still appears no easy long-term solution to keeping our lights on. Some still have real doubts about how big a contribution renewables like wind, tidal and biomass could really make.

Using much less energy might be one way of helping, but how big a sacrifice would we all be prepared to make?

The Politics Show will be discussing carbon capture and our future energy needs on BBC1 at 12pm on 20 March.


  • Comment number 1.

    Any scientist will tell you that taking the carbon dioxide from coal burning and reacting it with something else, be it water or rock, will require energy. That energy will have to be diverted from the plants burning the coal. The net effect is to reduce the energy output of the coal along with the carbon dioxide. The same effect could be obtained by burning less coal.

    On the other hand, because the energy output will be smaller, more coal will have to be burned to get the energy needed to run society. That might leave you mining more coal, without reducing carbon dioxide as much as you expect. Far from being a good idea, this starts to look like a lose-lose strategy.

  • Comment number 2.

    CO2 capture at best salves our consciences whilst providing work.
    CO2 capture at worst is a waste of time, effort, carbon and could be lethal.
    At best CO2 will be stored away for ever. Ever is a real long time. Kicked away into the long grass to be forgotten about. And think about all the engineering to be done. - Loads of work.
    At worst we will use up more carbon, creating CO2 which will be wastefully compressed then transported by pipeline, needing more steel & energy, and then stored somewhere where it will leak out and kill hundreds. Perhaps thousands.
    Google Lake Nyos.

    But hey. If there is to be money to be made it will happen.
    Somewhere government bean counters are busy talking to spivs who will use up resources and make them a fortune.
    The media will present it as making sense. Yeah right.

  • Comment number 3.

    Before we get too excited about carbon capture we should first ask our selves if we, in the 21st century, still believe in man made climate change?

  • Comment number 4.

    #3 Smiffie

    "still believe"

    What has belief got to do with the case in point?
    Facts. Facts are what count. Check them out.
    They might not fit with your belief but nevertheless they are facts.


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