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A swamp forest in Louisiana, of the same kind that's already being clear-felled and chipped to supply fuel to Drax power station in Yorkshire on a fatuous 'low carbon' promise. Photo: J E Theriot via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
A swamp forest in Louisiana, of the same kind that's already being clear-felled and chipped to supply fuel to Drax power station in Yorkshire on a fatuous 'low carbon' promise. Photo: J E Theriot via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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UK plans first new coal power station since 1974 - and it burns forests too!

Almuth Ernsting

17th March 2015

A new coal and biomass-fired power station could soon be built at Drax in Yorkshire, already the UK's biggest coal burner, writes Almuth Ernsting. It comes with a weak promise of possible 'carbon capture and storage' - an expensive, inefficient technology shunned elsewhere. As the Government's nuclear dream fades, could this be its equally flawed replacement?

Capturing carbon requires expensive technology and makes power stations far less efficient because a significant proportion of the energy generated is needed for carbon capture.

Drax power station in Yorkshire burns more wood than any other plant in the world and more coal than any other the UK.

And soon it could break two new records. It could become the site of the UK's first new-build coal power station since 1974 (when Drax's existing plant opened) and the first larger power station in the EU to be subsidised as a Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project.

Drax, together with Alstom and BOC, has submitted a planning application for a new 448 MW 'White Rose' power station which would burn coal with up to 15% wood pellets.

Although called the 'White Rose CCS Project', the planning application relates only to the new power station. National Grid is considering whether to invest in the infrastructure, including a 135 mile long pipeline, needed to transport the CO2 and pump it into a saline formation beneath the North Sea.

Such infrastructure would require an entirely separate planning proposal and by the time National Grid decides whether or not to invest into it, the Planning Inspectorate is likely to have already decided on the power station proposal.

Will the carbon ever be captured? That's anyone's guess

Even if the CO2 pipeline was built, there would be no guarantee of long-term carbon capture. The plant technology would allow coal to be burned with nearly pure oxygen rather than air, which is called oxyfuel combustion. This results in a gas which is high in CO2, allowing carbon to be captured quite efficiently.

Separating the oxygen from air however uses so much energy that Total and Vattenfall abandoned their oxyfuel test plants. Such a plant can also be run with air instead of almost pure oxygen. This would preclude carbon capture but allow Drax to generate more electricity from the same amount of coal.

The legal situation, meanwhile, is complicated. Under the Energy Act 2013, new fossil fuel power stations are not allowed to emit more than 450g CO2 per kilowatt hour. No coal power station could achieve this without carbon capture.

Does that mean Drax would have to capture 90% of CO2? Well, no. First of all, the plant would be exempt from this Emissions Performance Standard for an initial three years, during which it would not be required to capture any carbon.

After that, Drax would have to meet to the standard, but would have different options for doing so: they could capture around half of the CO2 emissions; or capture none and instead co-fire 50% wood pellets with the coal.

How so? Biomass is classed as 'carbon neutral', regardless of the substantial carbon emissions linked to logging forests, and all the fossil fuels burnt to turn the wood into pellets and ship it across the Atlantic.

The planning application contains no promise to capture carbon - it merely states that doing so would be "technically feasible" and "likely economically feasible".

If CCS had been the main purpose behind this plant, then the same technology could have been retrofitted to Drax's existing power station, rather than building an additional new coal power plant.

Worldwide, enthusiasm for CCS has been on the wane. This is not due to policy makers' doubts about the reliability of carbon sequestration, although such doubts would be warranted. So far, more than one million tonnes of CO2 have been pumped into each of three geological formations worldwide.

Bubbling ponds and mysterious booms

The longest-standing of these projects is CO2 sequestration into the Sleipner gas field in the North Sea. There, a large and unexpected fracture of the seabed was discovered in 2013, and one of the marine scientists working on the project warned in a commentary in Nature, the scienrifuc Journal: "We might have to appreciate that there is a much greater chance for some CO2 to leak out".

The second-oldest project, which involves injecting CO2 into half-depleted oil wells in order to extract more oil in the Weyburn in Saskatchewan, raised controversy when local farmers reported algal blooms, bubbling ponds and the unexplained death of animals nearby, preceded by "booming noises".

A consultant's report they commissioned revealed dangerously high CO2 concentrations. A subsequent study, funded by the oil company responsible for pumping the CO2 into the oil wells, concluded that the high CO2 levels happened to be of "natural origin", and had nothing to do with CCS - though not everybody was reassured.

The third large-scale CO2 injection project, In Salah in Algeria, was suspended after seven years because pressure was building up and causing fractures in the rock, raising concerns about leakage. Legal liability rules in the EU have also put companies off investing in CCS, showing that companies are far less reassured by claims about the 'safety' of CO2 storage than many governments.

The main reason why CCS has fallen out of favour with many governments and companies is cost: capturing carbon requires expensive technology and makes power stations far less efficient because a significant proportion of the energy generated is needed for carbon capture.

Cancellations everywhere - except the UK

This is why Norway, formerly one of the staunchest CCS supporters, cancelled its first commercial CCS project in 2013, and the government of Alberta, another former CCS enthusiast, has pulled the plug on CCS funding.

It also explains why no other EU country has invested in any larger CCS scheme, and why the US government has just abandoned one of it two flagship CCS projects. The other one is in serious trouble after its costs spiralled from $2.4 to $5.6 billion.

Only one coal power station with CCS has actually been built (excluding small pilot plants for research purposes). That one, in Saskatchewan, is only 'viable' because of a government grant (albeit one far smaller than what Drax expects to attract) and because it sells the CO2 to an oil company which uses it to pump more oil out of the ground. Even so, the original plans had to be scaled back because the demand for CO2 was limited.

Other governments are clearly cautious about pumping vast subsidies into CCS technologies which are excessively expensive, attract little interest from private investors, and are nowhere close to becoming commercially viable.

Not the UK government, though. DECC (Department of Energy & Climate Change) has already awarded £50 million for a feasibility study for the White Rose project and the plant is one of just two preferred bidders for a remaining £900 million CCS Commercialisation capital grant.

Just to give an idea of the scale of largesse on offer, this year's CFD contracts for 'established' (known to work) larger-scale renewable technologies over the entire UK including wind and field-scale solar amounted to just £50 million - yes, the same as DECC's grant for the White Rose feasibility study.

Taxpayers' generosity doesn't stop there!

Moreover, CCS is one of the Green Investment Bank's (GIB) four 'priority sectors', which makes a GIB loan for the White Rose plant appear likely. A capital grant and any GIB loan would be awarded upfront, and most likely without any guarantee that any, let alone most carbon would be captured and sequestered.

If the plant was to run with carbon capture, it would likely attract a Contract for Difference (CFD), i.e. an ongoing subsidy (funded via electricity bills), as well as an EU grant of up to €300 million.

And regardless of whether the White Rose plant was run with or without CCS, it would add to Drax's carbon emissions, with a maximum of 90% carbon capture possible. It would also require more coal mining, itself a source of significant carbon emissions as well as large-scale environmental destruction and air and water pollution.

Much of Drax's coal currently comes from one of the world's largest opencast mines in northern Colombia, where whole villages have been brutally evicted. Many more communities have seen their water depleted and polluted, and had their fields taken away, causing widespread malnutrition as a result.

On top of this, many of Drax's wood pellets come from the clearcutting of highly biodiverse and carbon rich wetland forests in the southern US. The new demand created by the White Rose plant would make all of these impacts even worse. In fact it's hard to know what's worse - the the coal or the biomass.

But the question has to be, why the UK's mysterious enthusiasm for CCS, which no one else seems to share? The explanation may be that the apparent failure of its nuclear dream has left DECC officials desperately casting around for something to take its place. Something, that is, that's not renewable.

And given the UK's track record for backing monumental white elephants no matter what the expense - from Concorde to the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor and now Hinkley C - perhaps we should not be surprised at the choice.



Petition: 'No public funds for a new coal power station in the UK!'

Almuth Ernsting is co-Director of Biofuelwatch.


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