Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Clean coal plants 'lead the way'

by Yvette Austin
Environment Correspondent, BBC South East

Schwarze Pumpe CCS power plant (BBC)
An oxyfuel boiler system is used at Schwarze Pumpe

While the government's decision over a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent still seems as far away as ever, on mainland Europe work is progressing towards a more advanced wave of coal fired plants.

Developers of the so-called carbon capture and storage, or CCS, stations say they are far more environmentally friendly because they release very little carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, meaning coal could become a more acceptable fuel of the future.

Along with a cameraman, I went to a major industrial zone in Eastern Germany to see the world's first CCS facility, to find out exactly how it works and to try to establish whether or not it could indeed pave the way for a new era of "clean" coal fired power stations.

The CCS plant at Schwarze Pumpe was dwarfed by a huge futuristic-looking 1,600 megawatt power station next door - the same size as the one planned for Kingsnorth.

The small independent carbon capture plant produces just 30 megawatts, so it would need to be at least 50 times bigger if it were to serve a power station like Kingsnorth.

Developing renewables

The costs are high. A new power station costs about £1bn to build, while carbon capture and storage adds about half as much again.

This turns a relatively cheap fuel into one that is far more expensive.

A spokesman for Greenpeace, Tobias Meunchmeyer, said the money would be better spent developing renewable electricity such as wind, wave and tidal power.

Schwarze Pumpe CCS power plant (BBC)
Schwarze Pumpe suffered from massive pollution

But Lars Stromberg, a vice president of the giant Swedish power company Vattenfall, which is developing the CCS technology, believes nothing must be ruled out.

He said we need a combination of renewables, coal and nuclear power to secure our future electricity supplies.

There are three methods of carbon capture and storage being developed, but the plant in Schwarze Pumpe uses what is known as an oxyfuel boiler system.

This method, it is understood, captures about 95% of the carbon dioxide that a traditional power station would release into the atmosphere.

In a full size CCS plant, the CO2 would be piped directly to its underground storage site.

'Stinky town'

In the UK this is most likely to be redundant gas and oil fields in the north sea. The industry says that this would be 99% reliable over a 1,000 year period.

While there is scepticism, people living near to the project in Germany welcomed the "experiment".

It is, perhaps, not surprising. Schwarze Pumpe is in the heart of a huge industrial zone in the former East Germany.

It was known as "stinky town" and pollution choked the area.

For the new developments to go ahead, the first step was to knock down three existing power stations, two factories making briquettes for heating fuel, a coking plant, a tar settling facility and large sections of gas works.

Local mayor, Dr Klaus-Peter Schulze, said: "During [East German] times, environmental protection was not a topic. It was all about production, especially in the energy sector.

"In this region there were 19 open cast mines. The landscape was destroyed and we had a lot of emissions. Since 1990, this has changed completely.

"The dust emissions have been cut by 99%. The next thing is to tackle the emissions we don't see."

There is a problem though. It will be at least 10 years before CCS technology is ready to be used on a full sized power station.

If Kingsnorth does get the go-ahead, the best that can be hoped for is a future addition.

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