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Underground coal gasification – fuelling the fires

It was announced yesterday that Thornton New Energy has been granted the UK’s first licence from the Coal Authority to use a process called underground coal gasification. Steve Walters, a director of Aberdeen-based Thornton New Energy, a subsidiary of BCG Energy, said that producing electricity from gas generated underground from coal allowed it to be processed so that CO2 could be removed, ensuring very low emissions.

Thornton plans to drill into massive untapped seams under Fife and the Firth of Forth and convert coal into combustible gas while it is still underground. The article goes on to explain that the gas can then be used for electricity generation, industrial heating and even the manufacture of hydrogen or ultra clean diesel fuel. So, it’s ‘business as usual’, as usual!

What is UCG?
The article doesn’t explain exactly what underground coal gasification (UCG) is, but a nice wee diagram on BCG’s website shows something called an ‘ignition well’. Hmmm, let’s Google.

Wikipedia is a bit more enlightening, explaining that  “the coal seam is ignited…and burns at temperatures as high as 1,500 K” – that’s almost 1,220 C or 2,240 F – a bit toasty! But we shouldn’t worry as “coal can only burn in the presence of air, and UCG is completely sealed from the surface by the geological strata above and interruption of the air/oxygen supply will stop the process completely. In short, there is no possibility that uncontrolled fire could arise with modern UCG technology”. Oh well, that’s OK then.

So, we are now resorting to setting fire to coal as it lies beneath the ground. Is this better than opencast coal mining – we just can’t decide! But it does demonstrate our complete inability to face up to the idea of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. BCG’s website also trumpets 300 years of clean and secure energy from UCG. What they think the world will be like in 300 years they don’t say.

The old CCS chestnut
You may think SANC is being unnecessarily sceptical about this new technology, but here’s the rub. UCG is only clean if combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and even then its cleanliness is open to debate. Yes folks, it’s another clean coal story which relies on an unproven technology.

In 2004, the Tyndall Centre conducted research into public perceptions of UCG and one of the conclusions was that UCG “should only be considered in combination with carbon capture & storage” and given that CCS is not a ready-to-use technology, UCG “should be viewed primarily as a potential back-stop technology.” Obviously things have moved on since 2004, i.e. we’ve dithered and swithered over truly clean energy technologies and policies and are now returning to coal – with a vengeance.

As with all other ‘clean’ coal technologies, what if CCS never proves itself? Well, we can worry about that later – or can we? The amount of media coverage on new coal in Scotland, such as calls for new deep mining, is extremely worrying to environmental groups like SANC, who are working hard on retaining any belief that Scotland’s climate bill is worth the paper it’s written on. So much talk of targets and so little action on change.

Against everything?
Well, SANC, what do you want – coal or nuclear? We want neither. We want real change. We want decentralised, localised, renewable energy systems which supply a much-reduced energy demand. But while the current administration says it’s against new nuclear power, it’s worth noting that Scottish & Southern Energy and Iberdrola, the Spanish energy company that owns Scottish Power, said on 20 January 2009 that they had formed a joint venture “to secure sites suitable for nuclear power stations”. They will be submitting joint bids for land at three locations owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority thought to be suitable for new reactor development: Wylfa in Wales, Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Bradwell in Essex. Will Hunterston be next in line if we have a change of Government or if the current Government has a change of heart? Only time will tell and if you believe the climate science, we really don’t have much of that left.


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