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Why is the government wasting a billion on technological pie in the sky?

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

While waiting for the comprehensive spending review, I passed the time watching two clips from British Pathé newsreels of the late 1940s. One featured Welsh housewives moaning about Stafford Cripps’s budget — one so angry at the cut in cheese rations that she threatened to shoot the Labour chancellor. The other clip, in characteristically uplifting tones, unveiled the Bristol Brabazon — the elephantine passenger plane with wings longer than Waterloo Bridge which was supposed to bolster the British aeronautical industry. A single phrase stands out as the camera fixes on mechanics carefully removing the chocks for its maiden flight: ‘You don’t take any chances with £12 million of taxpayers’ money.’

It is a laughable untruth. No matter how grim its austerity programme, no government can resist throwing money at technological pies in the sky. It was almost uncanny after the newsreels to watch George Osborne take a billion in child benefit from the pockets of families — and then splash it instead on a demonstration project into carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Who, presented with one of those wonderful popular science magazine diagrams, could object to a bung to help British industry take a lead in this promising technology? After all, it’ll enable us to carry on burning oil and coal yet cutting our carbon emissions in the process, right? And it looks beautifully simple. You suck carbon dioxide from a power station chimney and, with the aid of solvents liquefy it, pump it out to sea through a pipeline and bury it several thousand feet down in one of the now-empty rock chambers whence the oil or gas came in the first place. Pumped into the right place, the CO2 might even help force out more oil and gas, extending the life of North Sea oil and gas fields. A triumph!


Well, not quite. Remember the diagrams of nuclear fusion plants from the early 1980s? They too looked wonderfully seductive; yet 30 years and at least £10 billion later the world is still no nearer harnessing useful energy from what amounts to a miniature H bomb. I know I am a miserabilist, but I’m pretty sure this £1 billion on CCS will go the same way: a bonanza for scientific careers, but little at the end to show for it. The money, it transpires, will be going to fund a single demonstration plant, picked from energy companies who entered a competition set up by the Labour government in 2007. As there is only one company left in the bidding, it seems likely it will get the cash: it is Scottish Power, which wants to extract two million tonnes of CO2 annually from the chimney of the Longannet coal-fired power station on the Firth of Forth and pump it under the North Sea.

The Longannet project will be in good company. The world is awash with CCS demonstrations. BP, for example, has been operating one, in Salah in Algeria, since 2005. It is extracting 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 a year from natural gas and burying it 1,950 metres underground — where it hopes it will stay for at least 1,000 years. There is a similar project in the Sleipner gas field off Norway, and at least 100 smaller schemes around the world either operating or planned.

All the high-profile schemes, however, have something in common: lashings of public money. Not tax breaks or seed capital but raw cash. BP’s, for example, is part-financed by the US and the EU, which have so far put in $1 billion and €1.05 billion respectively. So here’s the obvious question: why? Why, if this technology shows such promise — the DECC claims that CCS could be a £3 billion a year industry in Britain by 2030 — won’t private industry fund research itself? Surely, with such a vast number of power plants on the earth and such a strong commitment on the part of governments to slash carbon emissions, there should be an equally vast incentive for private industry to invest.

Or could it be that industry doesn’t think CCS is ever going to be commercially viable? Of course, costs come down as a technology develops, but if it is going to be anything like £1 billion every time, CCS means that the price of building a power station will double. Then there is the question of whether CO2 will stay underground or leak — something we won’t know for years. The biggest problem, though, is the massive amounts of energy it requires to extract CO2 from the smoke of a power station, compress it and pump it underground. Demonstrations suggest that a coal-fired plant with CCS will consume 24 to 40 per cent more energy than one without it.

I did ask Scottish Power how much of its own money it was putting into the scheme. Its spokesman, Paul Ferguson, said he couldn’t yet tell me as ‘the figures are still being worked out’. But I think we can assume that it isn’t investing anything like £1 billion of its own. The company will get some good PR, but there’s every chance the taxpayer will see their money going the way of the Bristol Brabazon — scrapped without a single buyer.

The newsreels Ross mentions in his article can be found here and here on the British Pathé website .


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