The Government is to consider using the North East’s vast coal reserves as plans are prepared for a new generation of clean coal-burning power stations.
Experts have warned the Government it has little option but to consider environmentally-friendly ways of using coal because renewable energy sources have little chance of meeting rising energy needs.
Business Secretary John Hutton has set out an energy policy which will see the UK’s coal reserves used to prevent the nation becoming more dependent on foreign fossil fuels.
Mr Hutton yesterday said power stations which use new technology to capture harmful emissions produced when coal is burnt could be just as environmentally-friendly as wind turbines, and produce much more energy.
RWE npower is already examining the feasibility of building a new carbon-capture generating plant in Cambois, Northumberland, on the site where the now-demolished Blyth Power Station stood for 50 years.
And the North’s coal reserves could play an important part in the fossil fuel return, with more than 500 million tonnes of coal lying beneath the region.
In a speech to business leaders at the Adam Smith Institute in London, Mr Hutton said: “We cannot do without fossil fuels.
“A strong market-based approach to domestic production is vital.
“That means developing new technologies, but also making the most of our traditional indigenous resources of fossil fuels.
“They will continue to play an important role in ensuring the flexibility of the electricity generation system.
“Electricity demand fluctuates continually, but the fluctuations can be very pronounced during winter, requiring rapid short-term increases in production.
“Neither wind nor nuclear can fulfil this role.
“We therefore will continue to need this back-up from fossil fuels, with coal a key source of that flexibility, as we increase the proportion of renewable energy in our electricity mix.”
The Government is preparing an Energy Bill which will commit it to building clean power stations and investing in new technology to make coal a viable option.
The Energy White Paper states: “These reserves have the potential not only to help to meet our national demand for coal and to reduce our dependence on imported primary fuels, but also to contribute to the economic vitality and skills base of the regions where they are found.”
Energy expert Professor Paul Younger, from Newcastle University, said the UK had little option if it did not want to be dependent on Russia for its fuel needs.
“Even under the most optimistic assumptions, the rate of deployment of renewable energy sources over the next decade will come nowhere near filling the gap between energy demand and the inevitable loss of generating capacity which is now arising as old, dirty coal-fired power stations close,” he said.
Professor Younger warned the only solution to increasingly regular blackouts was coal.
“If we simply cover our eyes and hope for the best, the result will be power cuts on an increasingly regular basis, probably starting about three years from now.”
A spokeswoman for RWE npower said the Government was right to recognise the way coal could be used as “security” in the changing energy situation.
Minister for the North East Nick Brown said that while nothing could be said for certain on the future of the region’s coal reserves, he would support any clean energy schemes.
He said: “If there are to be clean coal trials involving carbon capture, I think the North East is very placed to advance the technology needed, and I would offer that my full support.”
By Adrian Pearson
11 March 2008
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