The government has suddenly renewed its interest in carbon capture
The news that the government has suddenly renewed its interest in carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a bit of a puzzler. Back in 2015, it cancelled the £1billion competition to develop commercial-scale CCS, a move which led to much gnashing of teeth among the green fraternity, but made perfect sense in terms of trying to bring new investment to the electricity grid. With a tsunami of subsidies flowing to renewables operators, baseload operations have become a thing of the past, and operators of gas-fired power stations are therefore forced to operate intermittently and with constantly fluctuating output. It’s hard, if not impossible to make a profit, so there has been precious little sign of anyone wanting to build new gas-fired capacity in the UK for several years – a bit of a problem given that much of the existing capacity is due to close down in the next few years. And this despite gas capacity being vital to maintaining grid stability. With the additional possibility of operators being forced to make any new power stations “CCS ready” at vast cost (CCS currently only works with coal, and then only after a fashion), the prospects of profitability were receding further still.
The cancellation of the CCS competition therefore represented a small boost to the chances of getting new investment in gas. It’s hard then to work out precisely why the government has suddenly decided to change direction. There is a remote possibility that they have decided to ditch renewables completely and focus on gas/CCS plus a rump of nuclear and hydro; that approach would make perfect sense in terms of grid stability (albeit that gas/CCS is still just a pipedream), but is politically implausible.
However, there is another possibility. Looking more closely at what is being proposed for promotion of CCS, the money available is trifling, albeit leavened with promises of further cash in future. Moreover, the proposed roll-out date for commercial CCS is in the 2030s, too late to play a serious role in decarbonisation plans while much too early for costs to have come down sufficiently to make the technology viable in its own right. What is the government’s game then?
I think it’s this. The latest wheeze in the green blob is bioenergy and CCS (BECCS), and in recent weeks this rather crazy scheme* has been pushed in reports from (among others) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Royal Society, and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change. These were all neatly timed to arrive in time to be digested ahead of the big climate meeting in Katowice in December. It all therefore looks as though Claire Perry, the energy minister, has simply decided to bung a few hundred thousand quid at CCS projects so that the UK can parade its green credentials on the big international stage. The money is just a rather expensive way to virtue signal.
*The idea is to convert a significant proportion of the world’s agricultural land (perhaps a quarter or more) into forest and energy crops to be burnt in power stations, with the emissions captured using CCS. It would probably lead to mass starvation and would undoubtedly be an environmental disaster.