Limited CO2 benefits of "clean coal" technology

Carbon dioxide emissions from "clean coal" power stations are at best 20-30% lower than from conventional plant, and much higher than from gas-fired stations, according to Energy Minister John Battle. The admission confirms that the Government's plans to subsidise clean coal technology may jeopardise its targets to cut CO2 emissions.

In Opposition, Labour announced plans for a "clean fuel" levy to subsidise clean coal projects as well as renewable energy schemes, under a transformation of the existing non-fossil fuel obligation (NFFO). The plan encouraged RJB Mining to propose a clean coal demonstration plant (ENDS Report 265, pp 22-25 ).

Critics of the proposal, including former Environment Secretary John Gummer, argue that subsidies for coal-fired generation would undermine Labour's manifesto pledge to cut CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010 from a 1990 baseline.

In June, in response to a parliamentary question from Mr Gummer, Mr Battle accepted that "all coal-fired generation releases significantly more CO2 per unit of electricity" than the new generation of gas-fired power stations.1 CO2 emissions would rise if a new clean coal plant displaced gas, oil, nuclear or renewable energy capacity, he said.

However, Mr Battle maintained, "some 20-30% reduction [in CO2 emissions] may be possible if clean coal plant replaces existing conventional coal plant." He quoted data from IEA Coal Research due to be published later this year (see table ).

The Environment Agency strongly favours IGCC technology because of its low acid gas emissions. But according to IEA, demonstrations of the technology have so far achieved CO2 emission reductions of just 8-18%.

Higher efficiencies may be offered by hybrid systems, such as the air-blown gasification technology developed by British Coal, but the Agency is uncomfortable with their high emissions and solid waste arisings. Some conventional systems with advanced steam cycles may offer comparable efficiency gains.

The adverse impact on the Government's CO2 plans is just one hurdle facing the clean fuel levy. Mr Battle has also confirmed that reforming the NFFO to cover fossil fuels would require primary legislation and clearance from the European Commission.2 Moreover, the existing NFFO levy is too low to support any significant increase in renewables capacity - let alone a major clean coal programme (ENDS Report 265, pp 15-17 ).

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