Forget capturing carbon, the key test of the usefulness of the United Kingdom’s upcoming Energy Bill will be whether it’s designed to be “hydrogen ready”.
It is almost certain that there will be a second “dash for gas” – that Britain will sanction and possibly underwrite a new fleet of gas-fired power stations. Those who wield modelling software are insistent that this will break the carbon bank – that new “unabated” gas plants will prevent the UK reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
The proposed solution technology – to be fitted to both coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, is known as Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS.
The British Labour Party are pushing for the Energy Bill to enshrine CCS on all new gas-fired power plants after 2020, in order to meet the carbon targets set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act.
“The Labour Party has put itself on a fresh collision course with the Government over its dash-for-gas policy, proposing that after 2020 all new, gas-fired power plants be forced to install technology to reduce their carbon emissions that will double the cost of the electricity they produce … Dr Robert Gross, director of Imperial College’s centre for energy policy and technology, said: “I welcome Labour’s sentiment on CCS. It’s saying that if you want new, gas-fired power plants, then that’s fine, but you have to make it consistent with emissions targets.” … Bloomberg New Energy Finance calculated that fitting CCS to new gas-fired power plants would add up to £200m to the building cost, doubling the price of the electricity…”
Although I have met a number of people who believe that widespread CCS is not only desirable, but viable, the carbon capture capability of Britain has not yet been proven – particularly whether CCS can be made marketable, as it is likely to be costly.
CCS is just a way to make carbon dioxide “disappear” – in most designs by pumping it underground. It is a caveat – it permits the energy industry to plan to continue to burn fossil fuels. It is not entirely clear if it can ever be secure or cheap enough to meet the UK’s plans. Just one leak from a carbon dioxide storage cavern, and the whole programme would be rendered irrelevant.
However, even if CCS becomes law, there is another clause that should be inserted into the Energy Bill, and I was discussing this with some industry players at Portcullis House, Westminster yesterday evening.
If European plans for low carbon, renewable gas production take off, what will matter for new gas-fired power plants is if they are flexible enough to combust a range of gases with varying chemical composition and energy density.
Deploying suitable flexible gas turbines is likely to happen – but for another reason. The UK is rapidly advancing with the capacity and supply of wind power, and solar power. Like Germany, pretty soon there will be so much spare, unused wind and solar power, that it will be sensible to consider using it, rather than shedding the load, particularly at night.
An excellent way to make use of spare and “stranded” wind and solar power, and balance the power grid at the same time, is to make gas when people don’t need power, and burn gas when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. Gas can back up variability in wind and solar power. But for gas-fired power plants to be able to “follow” wind and solar power and fill in the generation gaps, the power stations need to be highly flexible – something that new gas turbines can provide.
From now on, as an increasing amount of the gas the nation burns for backup will need to be Renewable Gas, a range of green gas streams that include Renewable Hydrogen, the new gas power plants that are built must utilise flexible gas turbines.
Of note – there are several plans for Carbon Capture and Storage on power plants that use a gasification technique to separate the carbon from the fuel before burning it – and the end result is gas that is high in hydrogen. This “incidental” production of hydrogen could become a useful addition to the country’s Renewable Gas stocks.