Shuffling ahead with UK CCS

The past fortnight has seen two long-awaited announcements come out of the UK carbon capture and storage (CCS) community. Peel Energy has lodged a planning application for a £3 billion (30.7 billion yuan) power station at Hunterston, on Scotland’s east coast, which it hopes will be Britain’s first large-scale plant to use “clean coal” technology. And the government’s competition to build the first publicly funded pilot project has finally progressed to stage two. Energy giants E.ON and Scottish Power – the only bidders left in the race – will now share a £90 million (923 million yuan) pot to expand designs for their schemes at Kingsnorth in Kent and Longannet in Fife.

At first glance, this looks like major progress. But the country is still playing a game of catch-up. The original timetable for the government contest would have seen the overall winner sign a contract back in September last year – something that will not now happen for at least 12 months. Climate-change secretary Ed Miliband may have trumpeted last week’s news as evidence of the UK’s unwavering commitment to an era of clean coal, but weary members of the engineering community began to doubt that message long ago.

Probe a little beyond the headlines and holes in the government’s plan begin to show. Miliband wants to fund four commercial-scale demonstration schemes by 2018. But, beyond the two in the current competition and Peel Energy’s Hunterston plant, there is little sign of willing parties to take up his generous offer. Add into the equation continued doubts over Kingsnorth, which has been battling blows from environmental protesters and was officially put on ice last year, and the number of credible schemes for the immediate future begins to look worryingly small.

Moreover, with a squeezed treasury looking for savings, a public opposed to energy-price hikes, Scottish politicians trying to block homegrown schemes and a change of government in the offing, the pledge to build four plants at £1 billion (10.3 billion yuan) a piece can hardly be taken as a hard and fast promise.

The latest progress is, of course, to be welcomed. It is always tough getting new technologies established, not least during – or shortly after – a recession. These are steps forward on what is bound to be a long journey. But the pressure on government, of whichever hue, to grip the CCS agenda will need to be sustained if more substantial movement is to be expected in the year ahead.