Plans for new coal at Hunterston

Energy in Scotland is a bit of a conundrum. We have lots of renewables and the SNP-led Government is against nuclear power, so surely Scotland is THE place to showcase what a clean, low-energy future can look like? Sadly not, as on 20 November, plans were announced for a new conventional coal-fired power station next to Hunterston B, a nuclear power station in Ayrshire which is scheduled for shutdown in 2011. Is this really the best we can do?

The UK government is keen to end Scotland’s effective veto over the building of nuclear power stations north of the Border and has asked the Calman Commission – set up to review devolution – to solve the “problem” of Holyrood using devolved powers, such as over planning, to block its energy plans. So maybe this is a political compromise, although First Minister, Alex Salmond, has made it clear that he thinks coal is a fuel of the future.

Danish firm Dong Energy and Peel Energy, a sister company of Clydeport, which also operates the Hunterston port, are behind the proposal. The station would mainly be powered by coal, but could use up to 15 per cent biomass – products from forestry and farming. Owen Michaelson, chairman of Peel Energy, said the site would be ideal as it already handles a large proportion of Scotland’s imported coal, which would avoid the need to transport it across the country. Great! Let’s ignore the impact of burning coal and shipping it across the planet, and pat ourselves on the back because this imported coal won’t be transported a few more miles across Scotland!

Carbon capture myth

The Hunterston coal plan comes hot on the heels of an announcement that the Scottish Government hopes to demand that new power stations are ‘carbon capture ready.’ Dong and Peel Energy say they will be ready to use carbon capture and storage at the earliest opportunity. What no one knows is when such an opportunity might arise. At the moment there are only a few small scale demonstration plants and many concerns over CCS. According to the IEA, CCS technology could be deployed by 2015 on a broader scale (i.e. 12 large-scale demonstration projects) if these initial projects deliver good results. But it will be too little, too late.

Proponents of CCS claim that CO2 emissions could be cut by 90%. While this may be theoretically true, it ignores two important facts. Firstly, cost. The increased energy requirements of capturing and compressing CO2 significantly raises the operating costs of CCS-equipped power plants as well as increasing the fuel requirement of a coal-fired plant by up to 40% depending on the method used. Overall, wide-scale adoption of CCS could erase the efficiency gains of the last 50 years and increase resource consumption by one third.

Secondly, oil. Pumping CO2 into old oil wells has been used by the oil industry since the 1970s to enhance the recovery of oil from depleting fields. CCS is unlikely to be economically viable without this additional oil revenue, which must be taken into the carbon equation. According to a 2005 BP press release, the 26 million tonnes of CO2 proposed for sequestration at the Millerfield scheme would have been used to pump an extra 40 million barrels of oil. If burning this oil produces 12.68 million tonnes of CO2, then the 26 million tonnes of CO2 ‘stored’ is actually just 13.32 million tonnes, or roughly half. For a detailed and well-referenced article on the problems with CCS, see Coal Action Edinburgh’s site.

CCS is a distraction as it simply can’t deliver on a large enough scale. Even if CCS is available on a large scale by 2020, the most optimistic forecast, it cannot possibly contribute to achieving a peak in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 or to managing the energy descent in time to avoid devastating climate change. The false promise of CCS, which has still to be proven and may not be feasible, is being used as an excuse to keep burning coal. CCS will not “smooth the transition to a low carbon economy”, rather it will delay it.

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