University of Sussex researchers have said that the government must not use “energy security” to justify expanding coal power production.

Allowing new coal-fired power plants to be built without carbon-capture and storage (CCS) technology would do “serious damage” to the UK’s credibility on the issue of climate change, the researchers claimed in a new report.

Jim Watson and Ivan Scrase, from Sussex’s Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU), said that pressing ahead with new coal power plants before the viability of CCS technology has been proven would undermine the UK’s commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.

“It is harder to argue that China should join a global climate deal … if the UK is permitting new coal plants with few guarantees that their emissions will be substantially controlled”

The report added that even a commitment to build coal-fired power plants that are “CCS-ready” is insufficient, because of the huge uncertainties about the economic feasibility of CCS technology.

Watson told the Badger: “I think that there is a serious risk associated with the ‘CCS ready’ position – that either the technology will not deliver as planned, or that it will not be economic to deploy it if it is demonstrated successfully.” CCS technology, which may be able to capture and sequester up to 90% of the carbon emitted by fossil fuels, is still years away from being widely deployable.

“There is also a risk to the UK’s international position. It is harder to argue that China should join a global climate deal – and eventually reduce emissions from its coal-fired power plants – if the UK is permitting new coal plants with few guarantees that their emissions will be substantially controlled.”

The government has previously connected the coal issue with their energy security agenda, saying that reducing reliance on foreign gas, particularly from Russia, means being open to the possibility of new coal power – even if it is not equipped with CCS technology.

In mid-November, Ed Miliband, Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said: “The Tories’ view on new coal is that whatever the demand, whatever the security of energy supply, there will be no more coal. I take a more balanced view.” He said that the government “would not set itself against new coal”, regardless of the ability of the energy industry to adopt CCS technology.

But the Sussex researchers claim that the insecurity of the UK’s gas supply owes more to a lack of gas storage here at home than to the possibility of malevolent Russians abroad. They say that investing more in storage is the answer.

“The government’s own consultants have projected a diversified mix of imported gas over the next decade or so, with only a small proportion likely to come from Russia”, says the report. “Ironically, the UK’s consumption of imported coal from Russia is much more significant, at around a third of total UK consumption in 2007.”

The report suggests that because of the uncertainty surrounding CCS technology, the government should seek to exclude the possibility of new power stations being built without carbon-emission controls. They say that an emissions limit of 500g/kWh should be enforced on all power stations, effectively ruling out non-CCS coal plants, which emit around 850g/kWh.

“I would argue against building new coal plants in the UK unless they are being used to advance and demonstrate CCS”, Watson told the Badger. “Of course, this will require additional funding from government or from energy consumers since it is not economic at the moment for power companies to do this.”

The success of CCS technology is widely seen as being of critical importance for developing countries and for the United States, where around 50% of all electricity is generated by burning coal. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama made much of his commitment to so-called “clean coal”, and many have viewed his election as a chance for a decisive break with the legacy of an administration that never really grasped the gravity of the climate change threat.

Watson is optimistic: “The US may not come on board as quickly as some hope, and may also be more ‘protectionist’ in its approach to climate policy … But Obama is an advocate of deep emissions cuts and of policies to support this”, including supporting the development of CCS technology.

He added: “I am hopeful.”

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