'Clean energy' power station ?  

Posted by Big Gav

The BBC has a report up on a new "clean energy" plant to be built in Scotland.

The world's first industrial-scale clean energy power plant to generate "carbon-free" electricity from hydrogen could be built in Aberdeenshire. The £330m project will split natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen will fuel a new power station to be built near the existing power station at Peterhead.

The carbon dioxide (CO2) will then be liquefied and piped underground for storage in BP's Miller oil field where it can also help to recover more oil. The carbon dioxide would be exported through existing pipelines to the Miller oilfield which is due to cease production in 2006/7.

The injection of carbon dioxide could increase oil recovery by up to 40 million barrels and extend the field's life by 15-20 years, BP said. Norway's Statoil company has buried carbon dioxide under the North Sea since 1996.

A few things strike me as strange about this. First, my understanding is that the UK is no longer a natural gas exporter and now has to resort to importing LNG, so building a plant to convert natural gas to hydrogen which is then burnt to produce electricity seems very wasteful. Second, the economics of using CO2 to enhance oil extraction in offshore fields have been questioned by the Norwegians (whose pilot project is referenced in the article) - though perhaps it would be economic if the lifetime of the oil feild is really going to be extended by another 15 years (especially given the rapid depletion we are seeing in the UK's oil fields).

I also worry that these carbon sequestration schemes that simply pump the gas underground are really just a large scale version of sweeping dirt under the carpet. Where this is done onshore, it raises the prospect of a Lake Nyos type of disaster occurring.
On september 14, 2000, the Dakota Gasification Company moved beyond survival. The company's one-of-a-kind chemical plant in Beulah, ND--an industrial beast that converts 18,000 tons of lignite coal into 170 million cubic feet of synthetic natural gas per day (enough to heat 2,500 homes for a year)--had been written off 15 years earlier as a government-financed boondoggle, a misbegotten product of crisis-driven U.S. energy policies. But the determined subsidiary of a rural utility defied its critics. That September day, the company took a dirty by-product--carbon dioxide--and made it a financial asset by turning on a new CO2 pipeline. Not only would the move secure the plant's viability, but it would also help clean up the environmental reputation of coal power.

Dakota Gasification operates a 300-kilometer pipeline full of carbon dioxide. This river of pollution heads north from Beulah to the aging oil fields of southeastern Saskatchewan. There the CO2 plunges a kilometer and a half below the earth's surface into thick, stubborn oil deposits. The CO2 cuts the oil's viscosity by a factor of four and eases its flow to the surface. Beulah's CO2 is expected to help extract 130 million extra barrels of oil from the Saskatchewan oil fields, for which Dakota is well compensated. Once in the ground, the carbon dioxide takes the petroleum's place, becoming trapped beneath an impermeable stack of limestone, sandstone, and shale. The process safely buries more CO2 in a year than a hundred thousand cars release in their operational lifetime.

While offshore releases of sequestered gas might not pose the same risks to life, you still need to ensure they can't occur unless the object of the exercise is simply greenwashing a way of increasing the amount of oil that can be extracted (I'm not sure how difficult it is to guarantee the CO2 won't escape).

In related news, the Guardian notes that increasing carbon dioxide levels are making the oceans more acidic and that drastic cuts in emissions are needed to stabilise the oceans by 2100. Drastic action seems highly unlikely though.

The Scotsman also has some speculation that global warming driven rises in sea level may make a map of the British Isles look substantially different in the future under the most extreme scenarios.
Although numerous studies have suggested Britain could be affected by rising sea levels as a result of melting Polar ice caps, the latest research presents a much more extreme outcome - and one with which other experts disagree.

Dr Tim Osborn, from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia - one of the world's leading institutions on global warming - expressed doubts over the predictions, saying they "would not be relevant to society for a very long time, if ever".

Data for the predicted course of events was gathered by a team who spent two months matching rising sea- level scenarios against topography data from a Space Shuttle mission, to produce the first detailed maps showing the possible impact of global warming on the shape of the British landscape.

The team unveiled three potential scenarios:

• A seven-metre rise in sea levels if the Greenland or West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted.

• A 13-metre rise if both the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted.

• An 84-metre rise if the East Antarctic Ice Sheet also melted.

Worryingly, the experts concluded that there was at least a one-in-20 chance that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would melt in just 200 years.

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