The power stations we used to generate electricity today (coal and gas) produce CO2. That creates acid rain pollution and climate change.
Ideally we would switch over to methods of producing energy that produce no CO2 at all. But given that we use a lot of electricity, and it will be difficult to switch over all of it quickly (and given that the people/organisations who own the current power stations want to carry on making money out of them for as long as possible) it seems sensible to see if we can find ways to carry on as we are but reduce the amount of carbon that we emit.
This is called Carbon Capture and Storage (or CCS). And ideas for storing the carbon range from pumping it back into the oilfields under the north sea to using it to make cement and concrete, in much the same way that corals extract CO2 from seawater to make coral reefs.
Currently there is a variety of ways that have been proposed to achieve this, but all are still at the laboratory stage. So the government is running a competition for businesses to come up with ways of converting these technological possibilities into industrial scale.
Chris Huhne has just announced that the initial CCS trials will now be opened up to include gas fired plants as well as the dirtier coal-fired ones.
Apparently there will be ‘up to £9.5billion’ of government money to help with development costs. And although some companies have been stepping back from developing the expensive and unproven new technologies others are saying that they will take part.
Including gas plants in the scheme seems like good news because it widens the playing field of where CO2-reductions might possibly come from. But it might just be that the government has realised that CCS on coal plants is not going to be as easy as it thought and is looking around for other ways to help meet its legally-binding target of reducing carbon emissions 80 per cent by 2050.
Critics say that gas is already greener than coal and we should focus our resources on making coal cleaner. Others worry that spending money on cleaning up dirty technologies is less effective than producing energy with zero carbon in the first place — with wind and tide power for example — and that this will distract us from meeting our target of producing 15 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020.
All of these might be true, and it is impossible to know where the ‘truth’ lies without further data. But it gives an indication of the difficulties we face, and the challenges that government and business are facing in making it happen.