Will carbon dioxide give Miliband the slip?

The minister is backing his nuclear play with a side bet on storing CO2. But Mark Leftly wonders if the untried technology will work

For once, Miliband the younger grabbed the headlines. Brother and cabinet colleague David had for weeks dominated the news pages over speculation that he would snaffl e the position of the European Union's first foreign secretary. But last week it was the turn of Ed Miliband, the Climate Change Secretary, who took centre stage after drafting one of the most comprehensive energy statements by this or any modern government.

The son of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament co-founder and Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband told the Commons on Monday he was fast-tracking the construction of 10 nuclear power stations to produce 16GW of power. "We need nuclear power, which is a proven, reliable source of low-carbon energy," he gushed.



That emotive word "nuclear" got everyone chattering, but Miliband's strategy was far from one-planked. He also detailed plans to raise up to £9.5bn through a levy on electricity bills to develop four carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects by 2020.



Capturing carbon dioxide and then burying it could end up cutting coal plant emissions by 90 per cent. "Our aim is clear," said Miliband, "for carbon capture and storage to be ready to be deployed 100 per cent on all new coal-fired power stations by 2020."



However, there is a growing consensus that British business cannot meet Miliband's target, that its cost may be too high and, say some, that the technology may not even be safe.



CCS is a massive undertaking, potentially expanding the size of a coal station by a half. The process has two stages: pre- and post-combustion. Technology for the former is far more advanced. As a result, demonstration projects for post-combustion are not expected to be completed until 2025.



E.ON and Scottish Power are the last two companies left in the competition to produce the first CCS demonstration project. The winner will not be selected until late next year. "The Government should be bringing this process forward," argues Charles Hendry, the Conservative Party's shadow energy minister. The whole point was to get this scheme up and running so that [UK] businesses could then sell their expertise to the likes of the Chinese – but the Chinese have already got their own pilot schemes ready."



Ignoring the missed business opportunity, the selection process has moved at a snail's pace, says Jeff Chapman, the chief executive at the Carbon Capture & Storage Association.



He points to Canada, which took just 11 months to choose three pilot projects in Alberta. "We've already spent two years getting to this point on only one demonstration project. Unless we start building CCS much quicker, the [second] target for electricity to be decarbonised by 2030 will be a tall order."



A leading procurement expert says that the Government caused itself a problem by putting the pilots out to competitive tender. Had it just chosen a private sector partner straight away, it would not have had to follow the EU's onerous procurement rules.



Industry sources also suggest that the cost of adding CCS kit to coal stations will inevitably be expensive. One estimates that while nuclear energy costs about £50 per megawatt hour, CCS could be closer to £90-£95.



"In the long run – 10 to 20 years – CCS will come down to about £70, but the cost of nuclear will have also reduced, probably to about £40."



Alistair Rennie, a CCS project director at FTSE-100 energy giant Amec, disputes these figures, arguing that the cost could eventually come down as low as £30-£50 per MW hour as technology improves. He adds: "It's certainly comparable to the cost of onshore wind power and cheaper than offshore wind. The more CCS we do, the more economies of scale we will gain."



For example, the test projects will typically capture about one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted. If the pilots are successful, CCS will be upgraded to cover the entire plant so that tons of carbon dioxide can be pumped out in a single, thick, inexpensive pipe.



Another cost will be the monitoring and maintenance of the emissions, which would be stored in geological formations such as former oil and gas fields. CO2 is potentially highly dangerous, as demonstrated by the Lake Nyos disaster of 1986 in Cameroon. A mixture of CO2 and rain droplets rose suddenly from the lake and killed nearly 2,000 people, as well as animals and plants.



While acknowledging the potential risk of CO2 leakage, Michael Osborne, Arup's associate director for CCS, says that sceptics have taken the argument too far. "We walk around with quite dangerous gases beneath our feet all the time and we think it is quite natural that gas goes into our home," he says. "That's potentially very dangerous, yet we're comfortable with our families being around it."



Criticism of CCS typically comes from those who would like to see nuclear dominate the energy landscape, believing it to be the cheapest and most efficient clean energy. They feel that this is the only way to meet the biggest target of all: to have greenhouse emissions down 80 per cent on 1990's level.



However, Osborne argues that building a wave of nuclear plants could produce far greater initial emissions than would be the case through CCS. "There is an abundance of coal around so there is an attraction to using CCS, while there is a significant carbon footprint with nuclear: extracting materials, processing it and constructing the plant."



A key problem with carbon storage is that it does not provide any financial reward for the energy sector. Many industry experts are looking at ways of reprocessing the captured CO2. For example, it could be fed to algae to accelerate photosynthesis, which in turn can be a biofuel with any residual matter used for fertiliser.



Graham Hillier, the new energy director at the Centre for Process Information, a business technology adviser, says: "Using CCS for algae is not terribly efficient but at least it does something with the CO2. We have got to get serious about the cost and the engineering challenge. Each reasonably sized installation could cost hundreds of millions of pounds."



Miliband the younger, then, is staking an awful lot on a relatively unproven technology which might cost much more than it delivers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'