Britain’s long road to clean coal

Geoff French is the vice president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a body that has criticised the pace of CCS development in the UK. Here, he talks to Olivia Boyd about the journey so far – and what more needs to be done.

Olivia Boyd: Six months ago, you launched a report urging the British government to speed up its carbon capture and storage (CCS) programme. How much progress has there been since then?

Geoff French: I’m not convinced that things have moved on much. Our government has said it wants to fund four trial projects to be phased in from 2014. But, to the best of my knowledge, only two candidates have come forward, both in Scotland. One is in Fife and one is in Hunterston. [German utility] E.ON also has a proposed plant at Kingsnorth in Kent, but has said it will delay an investment for up to two to three years, based on the global recession.

Given what the country has pledged to achieve by 2020 and 2050 in terms of emissions cuts, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has been trying to encourage ministers to move forward with a bit more urgency on this. We want government to support industry, we want the results to be produced as quickly as possible and we want carbon-pricing regulations that support the behaviour we need, irrespective of the fact that it will undoubtedly make energy more expensive – that’s just something we have to accept.

: Assuming all of that did happen, what would be a reasonable timescale in which to expect commercial-scale CCS to be implemented widely? People talk about new technologies taking 30 years to get established. Need it take that long?

GF: I would like to think it doesn’t have to take that long. But, realistically, it will be 20 years before it is widespread. If we are only now talking about implementing pilot schemes, it will probably be the late 2010s or 2020 before we get those up and running. And, after that, we need to scale up – to go from proving it works to implementing it on a mass scale.

That needs to happen as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t wait around to get a perfect solution. If we come up with a half reasonable idea, we should be implementing it and then improving it later. When Henry Ford made the first mass-produced car, which did all of 10 miles to the gallon, people didn’t sit around and say “Good idea Henry but come back in 50 years time when you’ve got the fuel consumption up to 40 miles a gallon.” The concept of grasping what you can and continually making improvements is a good one.

China is very good at that. It has really demonstrated an ability to take ideas and plans from concept to implementation much more quickly than we have in the west. The Olympics is one example. The implementation of a high-speed rail network is another. Whatever you can think of, the Chinese have done it at a scale and speed, which, frankly, the United Kingdom can only imagine. So I would have thought, for China in particular, there is an opportunity here.

OB: Other regions including North America and the Middle East seem to be pushing ahead with CCS more quickly than Britain. What’s the reason for that?

GF: It seems to me that some of the other countries have different drivers. Canada has implemented a bit of CCS but it had a vested interest because it was using the carbon dioxide it was pumping back into the ground to enhance oil and gas production. In the Middle East, there is some CCS but it is actually being used to reduce the carbon-dioxide content in the natural gas that’s coming out of the ground – they have to get rid of the carbon dioxide before they can sell it. So there’s a vested interest. This is an important point because, unless you can arrive at a situation where you’ve got the economic drivers encouraging the behaviour you want, you are trying to push water uphill.

Regulation can help with that. The European Union has said that, from 2013, permanently stored carbon dioxide will be considered “not emitted” under its revised Emissions Trading Scheme. That sounds like a fairly simple thing. But actually, if you’re going to start carbon trading, it’s a huge step forward – suddenly you’ve got a big incentive. Take waste management as an example. Recycling and waste-to-energy plants in Europe are much more common than in the United States, by a degree of magnitude. And when you get down to it, it’s actually the regulations that have been put in place – landfill tax or other regulations – which have affected behaviour.

OB: The UK recognised the potential of CCS very early and was the first country to launch a competition to build a full-scale system. But that programme is now running years behind schedule. What has gone wrong and what lessons are there for other countries?

GF: I think there is a slight mismatch between the stated intentions, which are very good, and doing the things that will actually encourage people to come forward with these schemes. That partly comes down to carbon pricing. People can see that CCS is a good thing and that it is required in the long-term. But they would rather do it if there was an economic benefit and the economic benefit depends on there being a carbon price with a sensible floor level. We don’t want a carbon price that fluctuates wildly and we certainly don’t want a carbon price that can float back to zero, because then there’s no economic driver.

That thought tends to send people into wild panics about distorting the free market but there is no way around it. You can’t have a situation where you invest in something now because you think the carbon price is going to be at one level and then the price plummets because of some technical issue. If you’re faced with that uncertainty and you’re a commercial business, why invest? It seems to me that, if Europe can come together to tell Greece what to do to stabilise the eurozone, it shouldn’t be beyond their wits to come together to sort out a carbon price.

: What else would you like to see from government at this point?

GF: We need a more realistic roadmap for CCS development in this country. We can’t keep having targets that don’t get met. Of course you have to set stretching targets but, if they go too far, they become counter-productive. People just say “that’s impossible” and you lose all the drive.

If necessary, I would also like to see more financial help to try to get some of these pilot projects started as quickly as possible. That’s politically difficult at the moment but, if you believe that climate change is a universal problem that needs to be addressed, then it’s a pretty good place to choose to put your money.

OB: I’ve heard the argument put forward in the United Kingdom that CCS is an expensive distraction and government should instead be focusing public funds on nuclear new-build, a programme that is currently being left to the private sector. Do you think that argument is at all justified?

GF: There’s more justification for that argument in the United Kingdom than there is in, say, India or China, where 70% of the power comes from coal. Here, it is around 30% of our electricity. But that is still a significant chunk. I think our energy policy should be diversified. I’m not a great fan of nuclear because of what it leaves behind but I don’t see any other option if we are to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. I’m very much in favour of renewables but even when you take into account all of the installations that can sensibly be put in, it’s not enough – you need something else. And nuclear is the only thing I can see that can fill that gap.

However, we will still be using fossil fuels for some time and so we have got to do CCS as well. I don’t think we can afford to ignore one important aspect. It is better if our energy supply is diversified and not too reliant on one sector.

: How much room is there for international collaboration on CCS?

GF: Enormous room. It has almost become a cliché but we are all affected by each other’s pollution so the response needs to be international. The issues are global and the opportunities are global.

Input from China will be vital, I think. In global climate talks and elsewhere, China is beginning, quite rightly, to exert its muscle, to make its voice heard. With that position comes responsibility. China has demonstrated a fantastic ability to convert ideas and concepts into reality. It has done it primarily for the economic wellbeing of its people and its succeeding incredibly well. But I would argue that it’s time to extend that into environmental wellbeing. We need the biggest contributors of carbon dioxide, the biggest nations and the biggest users of fossil fuels to stand up and really be counted on this one.

Olivia Boyd is assistant editor at chinadialogue.

Geoff French is vice president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vice president of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers and chairman of Scott Wilson.

Homepage image from Scott Wilson Group