Last week, Ed Milliband stood up in parliament and gave the go-ahead for a new generation of coal fired power stations.
These coal fired power stations are to be fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to capture a percentage of emitted greenhouse gases and transport them to empty gas wells in the North Sea where they will be stored. However those emissions which are not captured by the CCS system will be free to enter the atmosphere.
100% CCS is supposed to be (retro)fitted to all coal-fired power stations within five years of 2020. I remain dubious. CCS is as yet unproven in full. Parts of the process have been proven to work, but as yet no full scale plant is operational. It is possible - though not guaranteed, especially with the present economic climate - that the technology will be workable eventually. But what if it is not? Will the government then shut down existing power plants, knowing that the result will be a poor electricity supply? This would surely be a very unpopular decision, so we have to assume that coal fired power stations would continue to emit massive amounts of carbon.
Should CCS technology prove viable, there remains the issue of the long-term security of the carbon storage. We would need to be very certain that the carbon dioxide will remain trapped and not escape, perhaps adding significantly to ocean acidification.
The Guardian revealed recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/20/police-intelligence-e-on-berr) that secret intelligence on climate protesters was passed to E.ON ahead of the demonstrations at Kingsnorth last year. Given that E.ON is likely to be one of the companies involved in the construction of new coal-fired power stations, one might be forgiven for asking the Gramscian question "Who benefits?"
Surely we should be investing in efficient green energy technologies to generate our electricity. There are several tried and tested technologies we might promote:
• Biomass: Locally sourced biomass (e.g. used vegetable oil, vegetable waste or short rotation coppice) could be burned to provide electricity.
• CHiP: In CHiP, biomass is burned to produce electricity. The output heat is also captured and then used to heat the existing gas stream, then used to produce more electricity. The proposed Combined Heat "intelligent" Power (CHiP) plant at Becton in London is a very good example.
• There is also the possibility of generating electricity and heat (CHP) through incineration or gasification of rubbish. As with any heat producing plant, the waste heat can be utilised to provide heating and hot water for local residents via "district heating." Schemes.
• Biochar: Biochar kilns such as those provided by the Biochar Fund in Cameroon use pyrolysis to produce biochar and heat and electricity (CHPC). The Biochar Fund's stoves can also be used for cooking while the char is being made.
• In the UK, we have potential for good tidal current, wave and wind generation.
An important point to consider in the discussion of energy security is the role of decentralised energy: the use of local resources for local people. For example some areas are ideal for wind or tidal generation where others might be better burning rubbish or biomass: it makes sense to use the technology best suited for the area. This would result in a greater number of small-scale power stations or clusters of off-grid microgeneration, opening opportunities for community "ownership" schemes and local jobs building and maintaining the technology. These local schemes would be accountable to and would benefit local people, rather than corporations accountable to distant shareholders. Energy security should also be enhanced, where cables travel only short distances instead of across the whole country: energy outages in one area would not have a knock-on effect on another.
At the end of the day coal is a fossil fuel and has all the drawbacks associated with any fossil fuel – including the fact that, one day, we will run out.