Jamie Andrews

How CCS policy should have been designed

I’ve been having an interesting Twitter conversation with the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change. I say ‘conversation’, when what I really mean is that they replied once to point me to some documents online, and I bombarded their Twitter account with a barrage of messages. Tom Raftery also came in with a very good point, and I had some thoughts longer than 160 characters that I wanted to get down in a blog post.

DECC’s policy on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for coal-fired power stations is all backwards. The policy has been devised around the following lines:

  1. burning coal produces lots of CO2 (more than any other power source)
  2. we want to try and reduce CO2 in line with our legal commitment to do so
  3. coal-fired power stations are important to our existing energy infrastructure and the economic interests aligned around it
  4. in theory it should be possible to store CO2 under the ground instead of continuing to release it into the air
  5. the privatised energy market makes it hard to regulate effectively without bolding setting new policies that are not in line with ‘free market’ principles
  6. let’s say that CCS is definitely possible, and pay some of the energy companies to develop it
  7. let’s really hope that somehow it becomes economically viable for these projects to move beyond a demonstration phase (but we can’t actually say how we’d enforce that viability because of 5)
  8. let’s ignore the fact that we’ve already committed to definitely reducing these emissions (because we want to keep expanding aviation) and base our policy on “hoping that it will be economically viable”

If it was a rational policy precisely targeted at mitigating CO2 (so that we can avoid the massive economic cost of climate change), rather than mainly keeping power companies happy and  not disrupting ‘the market’, the policy decision-making process would look much more like this:

  1. burning coal produces lots of CO2 (more than any other power source)
  2. we want to try and reduce CO2 in line with our legal commitment to do so
  3. we need to massively change our energy infrastructure starting now in order to reduce CO2 enough
  4. let’s put a moratorium on all new coal-fired power stations until CCS has been demonstrated as technically feasible
  5. let’s fund proven low carbon technologies such as off-shore wind to the same MW capacity as the new coal stations in 4.
  6. let’s concurrently demonstrate CCS works commercially (in one power station in the UK)
  7. when 6 is complete, consider allowing new coal power stations with CCS fitted to be built, but only if this is a cheaper option than continuing to expand other proven low carbon technologies like wind
  8. ensure that during 7 consideration is taken of the cost of buying and burning coal vs wind (which is free)

At the moment, DECC’s web page on CCS includes the following phrase:

In the event that CCS is not on track to become technically or economically viable, an appropriate regulatory approach for managing emissions from coal power stations will be needed.

This demonstrates that “regulation” and CCS technology are being looked at in separate spheres, and that policy is currently being devised on the basis of economic stability, rather than carbon reduction.

This doesn’t bode well for the destabilising effects of having to rapidly decarbonise the power sector if CCS is proven technically impossible (unlikely) or economically unviable (very likely in the absence of regulation). It would give a much clearer signal to the market if CO2 reduction was the bottom line right now, rather than putting it off.

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