Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology promises to remove dangerous greenhouse gas emissions from the coal power generation process before it gets into the atmosphere. As such it has been presented as a sort of fossil-fuel Holy Grail. The trouble with CCS is that no-one knows when - if ever - it will be commercially available. At the moment there are only a few small scale demonstration plants.
The whole CCS enterprise is loaded with uncertainties. It doesn't mean it won't happen. But it does mean we have to take a long sober look at what role we assume CCS can play in cutting CO2 in the crucial period up to 2020, when CO2 emissions need to peak.
The theoretical possibility of CCS is being used by government and industry as a wedge to drive through new coal fired power stations in the UK. Kingsnorth 2, and others like Tilbury, Blyth, Ferrybridge, High Marnham, Longannet and Cockenzie, would each emit millions of tons of CO2 and are NOT CCS plants. They are plain old fashioned coal plants.
We certainly should not be allowing new coal plants to be built at a time when we need to cut our emissions - plants that will belch out millions of tons of CO2 a year and if left 'unabated' (ie without CCS), will make it well nigh impossible to meet our carbon targets.
Kingsnorth 2 is NOT a CCS plant. Kingsnorth 2 is a conventional coal plant. In an email sent from E.ON (the German utility behind Kingsnorth) to BERR (Department of Business) officials on January 16th 2008, the company says that CCS technology at Kingsnorth "obviously... has no current reference for viability at any scale."
The government doesn't yet even have an official definition of what "CCS ready" means. In practical terms, it's basically just an empty field. E.ON's definition of "CCS Ready" is:
"A CO2 capture-ready power plant is a plant which can include CO2 capture when the necessary regulatory or economic drivers are in place." - Modern Power Systems, June 10th 2007
E.ON opposed the suggestion from one government official that Kingsnorth 2 even be made ‘capture ready' as a condition of approval saying that Hutton has "no right" to withhold approval for the conventional coal plant they're proposing. Even if it is 'CCS ready' there is no commitment to actually fit CCS without the government policy and subsidy support that E.ON deems is 'necessary'.
Other power utilities have expressed doubts. Centrica says that conventional coal is finished as a generating technology unless CCS is proven:
"We believe that any investment in coal without carbon capture will be increasingly risky. We therefore have no current plans to invest in coal generation without carbon capture." - Centrica quoted in WWF 'UK Power Giants' Report, 09/07
Rival RWE npower support new coal-fired power stations (and are investigating onshore and offshore possibilities for CO2 storage) but, like E.ON, have their own list of worries before they think CCS can be fitted to their new coal plants. According to Andy Duff, npower's CEO:
"At this time there are still many financial, legal, regulatory, and technical hurdles to clear on CO2 transportation and storage technology." Modern Power Systems, June 12th 2007
Also the financial sector has expressed reservations:
"There is consensus that CCS will be an integral part of the solution to climate change. However, given its high costs, it will not be economically justified in the near term, when CO2 reduction requirements are likely to be small, and other approaches to CO2 reduction will be less expensive," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst David Lundberg in Global Power Report, June 7th 2007.
All of which is to say that maybe CCS will work and maybe it won't, but either way it won't be ready in time to deliver the immediate cuts in CO2 that climate scientists say we urgently need. Until such time as CCS becomes a reality - energy efficiency, decentralised energy and renewable energy - must be prioritized.