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Carbon counting and capture

02 April 2012

A new Centre for Carbon Measurement at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) was formally launched on Monday March 26 2012, under the direction of a World Economic Forum 'Young Global Leader' - the environment expert, Jane Burston.

Keen to reach out, as she put it - "to the right people" - her remit is to demonstrate how carbon measurement can improve business practices, promote low carbon innovation and ensure that the UK maintains its lead position in climate modelling and green technology. So, no pressure there then!

Obtaining reliable climate data on which to base policies, and support international regulations and voluntary schemes for carbon trading and monitoring, is a pretty big responsibility but it's one that Ms Burston apparently relishes, given NPL's resources and its leadership of international projects such as the European Metrology Centre for Earth Observation and Climate. As well as monitoring the progress of climate change, the Centre will also help to develop and measure the performance of low-carbon technologies - particularly the estimation of carbon savings from investments in smart grids and the detection and quantification of leaks from carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstrators.

The new energy secretary, Edward Davey is another keen starter and one of his pet projects is to accelerate the progress of CCS technology in the UK. Last month he launched a competition - worth up to £20m to successful bidders – to find better and cheaper CCS components and systems for pilot scale demonstration that will ultimately support the development of full-scale plants.

The government regards CCS as being a crucial strategy in the UK's battle to meet its carbon emissions reduction targets, though arguments abound against CCS - namely, the high cost and the length of time before the technology becomes widely available for implementation, and the problems associated with maintaining a reservoir of CO2 in geological formations. The Centre for Carbon Measurement’s role in monitoring the latter will be something both sides of the debate will be closely watching.

Meanwhile, the controversy over whether we are wise to plough so much money into wind power continues to strengthen. The latest broadside comes from Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University, who claims in a recent report that meeting the UK government's target for renewable generation in 2020 will require a total wind capacity of 36GW, backed up by 13GW of open cycle gas plants, plus large complementary investments in transmission capacity - and all at a cost of about £120bn.

According to Professor Hughes, the same electricity demand could be met from 21.5GW of combined cycle gas plants at a cost of £13bn - an order of magnitude cheaper than the above wind scenario. Moreover, Professor Hughes claims that even under the most favourable assumptions for wind power, the government's wind policy will reduce emissions of CO2 at an average cost of £270 per tonne (at 2009 prices).

In stark terms, this means that in order to meet the UK's renewable energy target it would be costing a staggering £78bn per year by 2020. Will we be prepared, let alone able, to pay this price in less than a decade’s time? Do we have a choice?

Les Hunt, Editor


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