Friday, April 24, 2009

UK commits to "clean coal"

The UK government, after many years of wavering, has decided to sequester carbon from its new generation of coal-fired power stations.

This issue has a huge history, some fo which is personal to me. The UK coal fields were deliberately and shamefully run down by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She was willing to sacrifice the entire industry to break the back of organized labor in the UK, and so undermine the Labour Party. That and Greenham Common forced me to leave UK government employment in 1985, in protest at Thatcher's policies. (It's a long story.)

Labour fought back, primarily on the issue of supporting nationalized health care, another Thatcherite target, and has been in power since 1992, but without as clear a connection to the unions. Labour today is in many ways just another European social democratic party, and in fact more right wing than it's French or German equivalents, more like the US Democratic Party.

Labour takes climate change serously, but they previously couldn't commit to the huge expense of sequestration. Neither, it seems, could they withstand the protests from coalfield representatives, and worries about how to power the islands.

So the Missouri compromise will go ahead, at least partly under the guise of holy Green Stimulus.

It remains to be seen whether sequestration will actually prove cheaper than alternatives for base load power or base load demand reduction, such as nuclear power, third generation offshore wind, pumped storage hydropower, energy efficiency, green building, building retrofit, and smart grids. I tend to think all these prices will equilibriate over time.

But Britain was built on coal. Literally. The coal fields underly such a large part of the island, it's hard to live anywhere that doesn't have at least a disused coalfield close by, within 30-40 miles.

Britan has a lot of expertise too, in major nationalized technology endeavors. Not that these were ever efficient. For the most part they weren't. But they were damnedly competent, in a bloody-mindedly, independently mindedly, British engineering kind of way, damn the torpedoes, fly the Concord, build-our-own jets without US help, have our own private system of nukes, our own cars, trucks busses tractors powerplants combines ships TVs stereos you-name-it.

How we ever afforded a middle class lifestyle with all this R&D expense and duplication is a mystery, but also possibly a subject for theorists of economic multipliers.

British heavy industry designs from the nationalized era, 1945-1979, went out all over the world in the form of ideas, engineering, patents, licenses, and the like. As a Rolls-Royce trained aeroengineer with the RAF, I benefitted from the hard-minded technological competance of this culture through discipline, training and analytic attitudes that I still use daily.

It's just possible that Labour's clean coal push can recover some of this vigor.

I am suspicious of "clean coal" as greenwash for Peabody et al. I lean towards Hansen's position: phase out coal completely. There will certainly have to be verification.

But if British CCS can be made to work, it will be another tool in the expanding base load tool box, one that with the right geology is potentially exportable to China and India.

Now that might solve a very big problem indeed, the problem of how to power China's and India's expansion without destroying the climate for everyone, and success would be well worth the effort.

More power to them. Despite sympathizing with Hansen, I don't think we can afford to rule any solutions out at this point.

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