Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The dirty truth

I was thinking about coal a while back, sparked by an article in the Shields Gazette (one of several over the last year) where local geologist Paul Younger was trying to sex up coal energy extraction. I never posted my blog on it, but was reminded about it today when I read George Mobiot's article. So here it is...

In carbon emissions terms, energy from coal is about as bad as you can get. It's dirty and kicks up a lot of other nasty things you wouldn't want your kids to breathe. Environmentally, extracting it is mostly disastrous. Despite efficiency improvements, even the new proposed coal energy plants will spew more CO2 than their predecessors.

I admit that I used to be warm to the concept of replacing 'King Coal' with 'Clean Coal', the latter being the burning of coal using a technological fix to extract the CO2 from the coal, either before or during burning, and bury the CO2 in exhausted oil or coal seams.

Commonly known as 'carbon capture and storage', it promises an opportunity for the UK to use it's hundreds of years worth of coal resources without a carbon hit. It seemed like a sensible way to bridge any coming 'energy gap' whilst renewable energy technologies matured, and guarantee a level of national energy security that gas or nuclear can't provide. A true energy magic bullet.

I've changed my mind. Carbon capture is industry-government groupthink bollocks.

Sequestration technology is still very much in it's infancy, and unproven as a mass commercial solution. Viable large scale capture technology may not be about for decades, and probably too late to have any benign effect on emissions. In May last year Alistair Darling conceded that commercial carbon capture technologies “might never become available”. Even if such technology does become available, there is no guarantee that such storage will be safe and wouldn't just place an unfair burden of responsibility on future generations. In these terms, carbon capture and storage fits a similar risk and sustainability space as nuclear power.

Essentially, the process will require digging up the carbon, burning it to release energy and create CO2, and then capture the CO2 and bury the carbon again - whilst ensuring that the capture and storage process uses considerably less energy than you produced from the burning.

Another more immediate problem with carbon capture is that government and energy companies will throw shit loads of money into research. Money which could be used to develop renewable power.

Instead of creating an environment to encourage the growth in renewable infrastructure that we need, through tools such as carbon price controls to make renewable energy more attractive, our government is hell-bent on coal extraction and burning.

In my past preference for capture, I had assumed that any coal dug up would be used in British power stations. However, in the cold cash reality of a globalised market the coal would go to the highest bidder - wherever they may be in the world. The economic powerhouse that China is becoming could buy all the coal it could afford, pushing up coal prices which would no doubt impact on domestic UK energy supply. We can already see China's hunger for uranium accelerating uranium prices. So much for the energy security argument.

Meanwhile the British countryside is scarred with opencast mines.

The carbon locked the rocks has already been captured and stored. It seems that the best way to reduce fossil fuel emissions is by leaving the fossil fuels in the ground in the first place.

The way to go forward is zero carbon. Large scale investment in any fossil based generation is a waste and a danger.


Bryan said...

I agree!

punkscience said...

John Hutton:

". . . it is inevitable that we consider fossil fuel because there is no prospect ... we can survive without fossil fuels."

Someone's pants are on fire! Whose are they? They're John Hutton's.