The crisis in the pits: Privatisation threatens clean coal technology

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PRIVATISATION is endangering the clean technology that represents the coal industry's best hope for the 21st century.

Scientists at British Coal's Research Establishment in Cheltenham have worked out a way of gassifying and burning coal in a highly efficient 'topping cycle' that could generate electricity with an efficiency rivalling natural gas turbines.

They believe that the clean coal technology will be competitive in about 10 years, when gas prices start to rise steeply.

But the researchers do not even know if the research establishment will remain part of British Coal after privatisation. It may be hived off as a contract research organisation, unable to make the long-term commitment that the topping cycle technology requires.

Steve Dawes, the head of marketing support and development at Cheltenham, said that the topping cycle idea had been tested at Grimethorpe, in Yorkshire. A working group headed by the industrial company GEC Alsthom had examined the work and sent a report to the Department of Trade and Industry which was 'very favourable to the topping cycle as showing promise in terms of efficiency and cost of electricity generated over other clean coal technology'.

Chris Buck, managing director of the European Gas Turbines division of GEC Alsthom, said that the topping cycle was more efficient than a rival technology, the integrated gassification combined cycle (IGCC). But, if the topping cycle was not demonstrated to the same maturity as the IGCC - and quickly - 'it will be an isolated technology without international acceptance'.

The intermediate aim would be to build a demonstration plant generating about 75 megawatts of electricity with an efficiency of about 47 per cent. But this would take three years to build at a cost of pounds 100m, and the research establishment's annual budget is pounds 15m.

Ultimately, the aim would be a commercial generating plant producing about 400 MW of electricity. Mr Dawes said: 'CRE has the confidence to carry on with it but we are not clear about the relationship between CRE, British Coal and the DTI in the longer term because of privatisation.'