There are some missions in life that take time. Occasionally you have to be more patient than you really want. But when the moment is right, you strike, and you follow through. For me, carbon capture and storage was one such example. By 2013 the stars were aligned – or more importantly the Government cash was ring-fenced, and two power projects, one in Scotland and one on Yorkshire, were ready to be the guinea-pigs.
When I first followed the energy portfolio for the Lib Dems in the Lords some ten years ago few outside of energy technicians and climate change wonks had heard of CCS. But with the Al Gore’s ‘inconvenient truth’, and the attention global warming then demanded, CCS’s star began to rise.
There was, and still is, a gap - a gap both in timing and in technology. We have to decarbonise our power sector, but we cannot instantly replace all fossil fuel generation with renewables. Even if we could our current best technologies – wind and solar – will not always meet demand. They are variable depending on season, time of day, and wind speed.
When Secretary of State Chris Huhne took control of DECC in 2010, he built a structured a new pathway to clean energy. First were renewables, encouraged by Feed in Tariffs and Contracts for Difference. Then, a carbon price floor, to compensate for the underperforming EU emissions trading system. Thirdly, the mundane task of year on year better energy efficiently.
Carbon capture and storage, was the fourth but essential element. The point was simple: however good we are at demand side management we are still going to have daily and seasonal peaking of energy demand. Fossil fuels, gas and coal, are good at supplying generation to meet peaks in demand. Without them there is still the ultimate threat – 1950s style energy blackouts.
With CCS you simply take out the carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants, put it back under the North Sea where we took the gas from originally, and you have a plentiful, flexible, decarbonised energy source.
Fast forward to 2013, and the Coalition Government has two major CCS projects on the starting blocks ready to go, with ring-fenced Government funding of £1 billion. One – the White Rose project in Yorkshire – was coal based, the other – at Peterhead in Scotland – is a gas power station. It’s a perfect combination.
Even with the change of government last year hopes were high. The Conservative manifesto counted CCS funding as a part of its ‘Greenest Government’s ever” successes. Here in the House of Lords in September, Energy Minister Nick Bourne stated, “CCS is central to what we are seeking to do on decarbonisation”.
But with the Autumn Spending Review it was not to be. That £1 billion investment was no longer on the table.
So a major hole appears in Britain’s long term low-carbon strategy. We lose any lead we might have held globally for this new technology. We forgo new technology jobs in Aberdeenshire and Yorkshire. We become an unreliable bet for future clean-tech investors. DECC consolidates its reputation for being run from the Treasury.
The UK played its part in reaching the landmark deal on climate in Paris in December. But with our Government’s all too visible retreat in every other area of progress to a low carbon economy – the future looks anything but green.