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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
Clean coal can plug UK's energy gap
Mike Farley
Mike Farley

The UK Government must embrace clean coal technology or the nation's lights will go out, argues Mitsui Babcock's Mike Farley in this week's Green Room. While the recent energy review set out a strategy for the long term, Mr Farley says urgent action is needed to bridge a looming "energy gap".

A candle (BBC)
The government must take serious action now, or the lights will go out
The UK Government must be applauded for courageously taking steps to reduce emissions in its energy review - it is certainly a huge step in the right direction.

However, it offers little room for optimism in the short-term. By failing to act on the immediate supply and pricing issues it is failing to deliver on a number of objectives that it set itself.

Demand for energy is rising, yet the nation now faces a 20 GW power shortage by 2016. A large proportion of our current supply is gradually being shut down in the next 10 years as old power plants are retired. At the same time demand is expected to increase.

Unless we do something the threat of power cuts will grow and grow every year, destabilising energy prices.

The big omission in the energy review is that it overlooks last winter's shock gas prices and supply problems. As a result, the review's plan of action focuses on the long-term at the expense of the short-term energy gap and supply issue.

Diagram of a coal gasification plant

It is worrying to see the government taking a "fingers crossed" approach with electricity supplies until 2019 when the first of the possible new nuclear plants would become operational.

If we don't fill some of that gap then we will have more of the very problems that the energy review was supposed to prevent. If the UK is to avoid the gap, we need to ensure a large number of new or replacement clean coal power plants will soon be operational. To fill a 20 GW deficit we need to build at least 2 GW of plant each year, for 10 years.

Clean Coal is the perfect complement to nuclear, gas and renewables, ensuring we don't put all our eggs in one basket.

Gas prices are rising; nuclear is for the long-term and while wind farms are clean they only provide energy on an intermittent basis. So why does the energy review still leave uncertainty about whether clean coal has full government commitment?

Fuelling the future

Clean coal technologies include methods to improve efficiency and methods of carbon dioxide "capture and storage", where the gas is stored underground. Simply improving the efficiency of coal-fired generation can reduce emissions by up to 40% if you also include biomass co-firing, and the capture and storage option would trap 90% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Cyclist riding past chimneys emitting thick smoke (AFP)
Adopting clean coal to fill the immediate energy gap would also help us set the right example internationally and encourages the meeting of emissions targets globally

Ministers should be encouraging the owners of Britain's existing coal plants to clean up their act. It should not be delaying decisions on incentives for carbon capture and storage technology. While Germany has interpreted the Europe-wide Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to encourage the investment in clean coal, the UK just keeps postponing decisions.

Coal is something we have in abundance. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), proven coal reserves worldwide are equivalent to almost 200 years of production at current rates and exceed those of oil (36-44 years) and gas (66 years) by a wide margin. Coal can be stockpiled safely and its supply increased quickly whenever it is needed.

Example setting

The Clean Coal Task Group, a cross-industry initiative, would like to see the government maintaining the present number of coal-fired power stations in the UK, progressively converting them to clean technology, and setting a green example for the rest of the world to follow.

BBC Electricity Calculator graphic

The technology would not only ensure the UK has a reliable source of electricity and make a massive contribution towards cutting emissions, but it will also help secure the future for thousands of people currently employed in coal mining and coal-fired power stations across the UK.

Adopting clean coal to fill the immediate energy gap would also help us set the right example internationally and encourages the meeting of emissions targets globally. Countries such as China, India and the US produce more than 30 times more carbon emissions than the UK and must be encouraged to clean up their coal powered plants.

Clean coal technology is the best solution for the short-term if we are to avoid overdependence on imported gas. It can reliably close the UK's immediate energy gap, within a diverse generation portfolio that secures energy supply.

Because coal can be stockpiled, prices remain stable. Indeed, they have remained relatively stable for decades. Clean coal provides the means to achieve the objectives set out in the energy review.

The energy review is just the first step. The government must take serious action now, or the lights will go out.

Mike Farley is director of Technology Policy Liaison at the energy services company Mitsui Babcock, and chairman of the TUC/DTI/Defra Clean Coal Task Group

The opinions expressed in this article are Mike Farley's personal views

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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