There can be no doubt of the bitter disappointment that Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, must have felt when the consortium led by Scottish Power walked away from the chance of establishing and operating Britain's first power plant with Carbon Capture (CCS) and reported by the media on 19 October 2011. The consortium led by Scottish Power, a subsidiary of Spanish utility firm Iberdrola though its headquarters is in Glasgow, also included National Grid and Shell UK. It was hoped that a fully operational CCS facility could be installed at Scottish Power's coal-fired power station at Longannet, Fife and that it would become a world leader.
Longannet (pronounced Long Annet) has a generating capacity of 2,400 megawatts and is the UK's second largest coal-fired power plant after Drax in Yorkshire, and Europe's third largest. The plant with its distinctive 600 foot chimney stack, is also capable of using biofuel and waste for power generation, has no cooling towers as it uses water from the River Forth for this purpose, but it is Scotland's single-biggest polluter emitting between seven and eight million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. It was the ideal candidate for CCS!
The carbon-capture unit at Longannet was commissioned in 2009 and the simplest explanation as to how it was to have worked is to quote parts of that given by the Department of Energy and Climate Change:
"...CCS is a mitigation technology essential in tackling global climate change...CCS technology captures carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power stations. The CO2 is then transported via pipelines and stored safely offshore in deep underground structures, such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and deep saline aquifers..."
What this doesn't tell you is that this extracting, liquefying and piping process is not easily done and certainly does not come cheap. For a start, the plant will require an extra 25 to 35 per cent more fuel, in this case coal, running CCS, just to maintain the same level of power output and bills, whether to commercial users or households, can be expected to go just one way - UP.
When thinking of the good of planet earth however, the project could have had no better advocate than Mr Huhne. A keen and vocal environmentalist and noted for his promotion of green issues, even when this means increasing taxes, he has been the Liberal Democrat Party spokesman on such matters since 2006. He may not have initiated the Longannet unit but there is no doubting his enthusiasm when one reads on his Department website:
"CCS has a key part to play in ensuring that we can keep the lights on at the same time as fighting climate change...The UK has the skills and opportunity to lead the world in this technology, which is why in the spending review we committed to investing up to a billion pounds in CCS."
In the current circumstances, a billion is a significant gamble for any government on what the BBC reporter on Reporting Scotland on 19 October described: "...to do this would require world-leading technology to be developed; technology that would be untried and very expensive."
Mr Huhne told the Commons, not very convincingly, that what scuppered the deal, was the length of pipeline to take the CO2 to the undersea reservoirs made the scheme "unviable", along with specific technical problems at Longannet. One hundred and sixty or seventy miles of pipeline?? When there's a least 3,500 miles of pipeline currently injecting liquefied CO2 into depleted oil and gas fields in the USA and Canada!
Some could be doubting the Government's true commitment and the Minister did have to admit that there was no "unlimited resource" but added:
"When we have clear indications that we can do what we need to do with (CCS) at a commercial scale within the £1 billion budget that we have got, then...that is what sensible taxpayers and energy bill payers would want us to do."
There were some who remained disappointed. Carbon Capture expert, Professor Stuart Haszeldine told the BBC on 19 October that the £1 billion pond figure was "plucked out of the air in 2007," and continued: "After the most detailed design study in the world, we now know that the number is £1,200 million, so that's not very far apart. I think people can make more of an effort to bridge that gap."
A spokesman for Scottish Power expressed immense disappointment on the scheme's collapse but added that they were very proud of the level and quality of work that had been achieved in the feed study and the level of detail that the company had achieved.
This was all not good enough for Dr Evan L Lloyd who wrote a letter to The Herald (Glasgow) on 22 October stating:
There has been a document published giving the project costs and the total comes to £1.05 billion, close to the sum available. The Treasury now says it would have to add £300 million in case the project overruns and an additional 15 per cent because it does not believe the document costings."
Well, would you believe it, the keepers of the public finances doubting whether a project that could test our technical know-how to the limit might far exceed the budget. Could be that they read the Special Report on Modern Energy in the Financial Times on 29 September 2011. Especially that piece on Carbon Capture by Andrew Ward on page four.
In an interview with Norway's State Secretary for Energy, Per Rune Henriksen, the Minister admits that Norway's flagship CCS demonstration plant at Mongstad has been beset with difficulties: "This is a very complicated project and the difficulties turn out to be bigger than expected...now we have decided we have to go further in developing the technology before we take the investment decision."
Sobering when one learns that the pilot scheme to date has eaten up $1 billion!