The Government is basing its enthusiasm for new coal-burning power stations on the notion of retrofitting CCS (carbon capture and storage) in the future once the technology is developed.
But is this feasible?
"Even the most optimistic proponent of CCS would not envisage any demonstration plant to be operational much before 2015, which would put wide-scale deployment as far away as 2020 or later after lessons from the pilot have been learned and digested," says a submission from The Royal Academy of Engineering to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).
In July the EAC published its examination of CCS and found it to be a pipe dream. In fact, an end-of-pipe dream. It estimates that the cost of building the first CCS plant could be anything up to £500m, on top of the £1bn cost of a new coal-fired power station. Retrofitting CCS at a station like Kingsnorth is likely to cost over £1.1bn. This is a huge figure by any standard, and would have a massive impact on energy prices.
The EAC urges: "We cannot emphasise strongly enough that the possibility of CCS should not be used as a fig leaf to give unabated coal-fired power stations an appearance of environmental acceptability." Furthermore, "Replacing old coal-fired power stations with new ones, rather than using alternative energy sources, locks Britain in to a high level of emissions for many years to come."
Hutton has said that a high carbon price under the EU-ETS will mean that CCS-retrofitting so-called 'CCS-ready' new power stations becomes economical. The EAC slams this notion on three counts:
1. Lack of knowledge of the technology: since the eventual nature of CCS technology is currently unknown, how can a plant built now be designed to have the technology retro-fitted on?
2. Carbon emissions: "The EU ETS is a mechanism designed to reduce emissions; using it as a cover for choosing high emissions technology goes against the purpose of the scheme."
3. The price per tonne of CO2 for retrofitting CCS required to make it commercially viable is unfeasibly high: estimates of this vary from the rather optimistic €40 (E.ON UK) to €90-155 per tonne (Climate Change Capital) and €70-100 per tonne (UK Energy Research Centre). How much it will really be is anybody's guess, but the Government cites an EU estimate of a forward price of carbon of €39 for 2013-2020 (EU-ETS Phase 3). The UK Energy Research Centre predicts around €30. The EAC concludes from this: "the gap between the carbon price and the cost of CCS is enormous".
The EAC concludes: "Coal should be seen as the last resort, even with the promise of CCS."
[Sources available in the EAC report on CCS].