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Energy: Clean Coal Technology

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress they have made towards the development of clean coal technology, including carbon capture and storage.

My Lords, since the publication of the energy review in June last year we have made considerable progress in developing our thinking on a number of fronts regarding the development of clean coal and carbon capture and storage technologies. We are developing a regulatory regime for carbon capture and storage in the UK. In the Pre-Budget Report, the Government undertook to consider the cost-effectiveness of CCS demonstration. We are therefore undertaking a consulting engineer’s study. This should be completed by the end of March.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reasonably encouraging reply. Is he aware that presently, in global terms, no less than 40 per cent of electricity is generated from coal; that it is growing very rapidly, especially in China and India; and that according to the recently published Stern report on climate change, by 2030 one-third of all emissions will come from coal? Does it not therefore follow that measures to bring about the collection and storage of carbon should be introduced urgently? Furthermore, is the noble Lord aware that a number of firms have expressed an interest in building commercial plants using this system—which has been fully developed at the experimental stage? Can he give us an assurance that the Government will give them every possible support in so doing?

My Lords, the House will be aware of the long period over which the noble Lord has campaigned on these issues. He must therefore be very pleased by the progress that is being made and was reflected in my Answer. On his general position, the noble Lord is absolutely right: coal will play a very important part in electricity generation worldwide, particularly in China and India. There are opportunities which we are looking at closely. If we are successful in developing clean coal and carbon storage in this country, we may be able to make progress on behalf of both the Chinese and the Indians to mutual advantage. On the overall issue of climate change, clean coal and carbon storage are of the greatest importance.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is considerable advantage to be gained by combining the underground gasification of coal with carbon sequestration and storage? Can he tell us anything about the project which has been proposed as a feasibility study, costing around €3.5 million, by a consortium of European universities and commercial interests to investigate that possibility? Is he aware that no fewer than three universities in this country—Newcastle, Keele and Nottingham—are showing great interest in this feasibility study? Can he tell us what is happening to this proposal?

My Lords, it is certainly a welcome development. However, as the noble Lord will recognise from the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, a number of very large and well resourced private companies also are interested in this whole development, and particularly in carbon storage. The Government are committing themselves to this consultation, which will cost £35 million. Should satisfactory progress be made, we would then foresee very significant commercial developments to which the research work being done by universities across Europe would make an important contribution.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister on becoming such an expert in clean coal technology in 24 hours. Do the Government have a view on how important it is for coal produced in England, mostly by open-cast mining, to have a role in clean coal technology in the future?

My Lords, coal burning in power stations in the UK will continue for a considerable time and contribute to our energy needs for the foreseeable future. The greater part of that coal will be imported. However, my noble friend is right that there are coal resources in this country which are still to be exploited. Very little is now available in deep mines, but some is available through surface mining.

My Lords, in supporting the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and in line with the church’s enthusiasm for reducing CO2 emissions, I press the question which the noble Lord opposite asked about the progress that has been made on the gasification plants that were promised as long ago as 2003. Will the Minister comment in more detail on the prospect of underground gasification, which many in County Durham believe would offer a cleaner and more efficient long-term—albeit expensive in the short term—energy alternative? Does he agree that this would reduce the proverbial silliness of importing coal to Newcastle—nearly 50 million tonnes per year—and also give new hope to communities that are still suffering the effects of the 1980s? I declare a second-hand interest in that the mineral rights in County Durham used to belong to my predecessors, the Bishops of Durham. After the demise of nationalisation, those rights have now reverted to the Church Commissioners.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an important contribution. As he will recognise, however, we have a great deal of work to do before we are able to establish a commercially viable technology. As I indicated, at least nine major, well resourced companies are pursuing various potential strategies on this work. The Government are investing their own £35 million for effective development to demonstrate and establish confidence in private industry that the huge investment necessary will produce the required results. What that would do for British coalfields, whether deep mine or open-cast, is bound to be marginal in comparison with future coal burning in our power stations.