Could burning coal under the sea provide 200 years of ‘clean’ energy?

  • 16 Dec 2013, 15:45
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

The government claims it's on a mission to clean up the UK's energy system. You could be forgiven for thinking that means an end to coal power - the most polluting energy source of all. But, thanks to new technology, the government hopes there's a new, 'clean' way to keep using coal.

Writing in the  Telegraph this weekend, Algy Cluff, chief executive of energy company Cluff Natural Resources, says 'underground coal gasification' could "provide a vital energy solution and produce abundant and cheap gas for generations". The prospect has piqued the government's interest, and energy minister Michael Fallon has  established a working group to explore its feasibility.

But is it too good to be true?

What is underground coal gasification?

Underground coal gasification (UCG) involves drilling down into coal - normally deep underground - then igniting it. The resulting gas then runs up another borehole and is collected on the surface, as the diagram below shows:


underground coal gasification diagram

Once the gas is collected, companies can use it to run power stations, or convert it into transport fuel. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can be added, reducing the process' emissions, and making it relatively 'clean'.

As such, the government now sees the "exciting pot

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Could Arctic summers be sea ice-free in three years’ time?

  • 12 Dec 2013, 12:41
  • Roz Pidcock

Climate change is causing a long-term decline in Arctic sea ice, and scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to be largely ice-free in summer at some point this century.

But is that broad prediction too complacent? This week, the Guardian claimed scientists working for the US Navy believe summer sea ice could disappear as soon as 2016, based on the results of a sophisticated new computer model.

But having looked at the research, it turns out the 2016 prediction is from an older, simpler model, and isn't the US Navy prediction of what's going to happen in the Arctic. It's also much sooner than most polar scientists would suggest.

An ice-free prospect

Arctic sea ice is declining by nearly four per cent per decade, according to the  latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The loss is particularly noticeable at the end of summer, when the ice reaches a seasonal low.

Arctic _sea _ice _summer

Average extent of Arctic sea ice in summer (colours represent different datasets). Source: IPCC 5th Assessment Report,  Summary for Policymakers (p8)

The change has  wide-reaching consequences, so when it might happen is an important question.

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Will the 'big six' profit from lobbying to keep homes energy inefficient?

  • 03 Dec 2013, 15:30
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Cdpweb161

Energy companies  lobbied the government to cut 'green levies' from bills, and yesterday they  got their wish. But now the government has announced it will be  reforming a number of energy efficiency schemes, do the 'big six' stand to profit?

The Times this morning  reported that the policy rollback could mean companies reap the rewards of selling energy that would not be needed if energy companies were made to stick to their efficiency targets. The news is likely to be poorly received by consumers and politicians who have lambasted the industry for making what some see as excessive profits in recent months.

The government says the changes aren't a sop to the big six, however. It maintains that the policy changes will save as much energy as the previous package. We take a close look at the numbers.

£360 million extra revenue

The government has announced it will  relax the requirements of an energy saving scheme that obliged energy suppliers to subsidise home insulation for low-income households - known as the energy company obligation (ECO). The Times reports that companies will be able to sell an extra £360 million worth of energy due to the changes.

The headline figure comes from energy efficiency industry group, the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE). It argues that because the programme is being cut, less homes will be made energy efficient, and energy companies will profit from the overall increase in energy use.

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Mail on Sunday's £300 billion 'eco bill' claim is almost double government estimates

  • 02 Dec 2013, 16:45
  • Mat Hope & Ros Donald


The government has today announced households would be paying  £50 less for energy next year - good news, says climate skeptic journalist David Rose in the  Mail on Sunday. But before everyone rushes out to spend their newly-recovered funds, they should hear the bad news: The paper says households will still be expected to foot a £300 billion "eco-bill" due to the UK's climate legislation.

But that headline figure is almost double what the government says will need to be spent to modernise the UK's energy system.


Rose says the government's latest announcement is small fry compared to the bigger costs associated with governments obligation to decarbonise. He says the main reason bills are going to go up in the future is because the government is going to have spend big to reduce emissions.

That's because MPs passed a law in 2008 which obliges the government to reduce the UK's greenhouse gas emissions. He says the Climate Change Act requires the government "to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 15 per cent from their 1990 level by 2020".

That's not true. The government is legally required to reduce emissions by considerably more than this - 80 per cent cut by 2050, which implies a  42 per cent reduction in 2020 according to government advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).


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Energy companies’ network costs estimate 10 times larger than Ofgem’s

  • 22 Nov 2013, 15:00
  • Robin Webster

Government plans to upgrade the electricity and gas grid could add as much as £180 to energy bills over the next decade, according to a report promoted by the energy industry last week. But energy regulator Ofgem suggests the cost could be less than a tenth of that. 

At its  annual conference last week, industry body Energy UK presented the conclusions of a report that suggests the costs of transporting electricity and gas will increase by more than 50 per cent by 2020. 

The claim comes from financial services company  UBS. Ofgem - which sets controls on the amount of money network operators can charge suppliers to use the grid, projects that network costs will go up by just a fraction of UBS's prediction, however.  

How network costs work 

Energy suppliers pay to transport electricity and gas around the country using the electricity networks and the gas grid. The money is paid in the form of rent to the companies that own the grid. 


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Can coal be compatible with emissions cuts?

  • 18 Nov 2013, 15:50
  • Mat Hope

Poland is hosting two international meetings this week, with seemingly contradictory goals: It is convening the latest round of international climate talks at the same time as giving industry a platform to claim increased coal use is compatible with climate goals.

Environmentalists have  criticised the Polish government for the scheduling clash, accusing it of allowing the the climate negotiations to become framed on the coal industry's terms.

Carbon budgets

The Polish government today released a joint statement with industry group, the World Coal Association (WCA), saying:

"There are many misconceptions about coal and its environmental impact. Many believe that the use of coal is incompatible with meeting the challenge of climate change. We disagree."

The organisation calls on governments to implement policies encouraging the immediate rollout of "low-emissions coal combustion technologies" - meaning any new power plants would be built to the most state-of-the-art specifications. It says development banks should find a way to help developing countries pay for the more efficient - but more expensive - new plants.

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How energy companies make profit: A closer look at the data

  • 11 Nov 2013, 16:10
  • Mat Hope

Two of the UK's biggest energy companies - SSE and British Gas - are expected to release their latest financial statements this week.

The media will be paying closer attention than ever to see how their profits are faring after both companies announced significant price hikes in October.

Energy companies make some profit from the energy they supply to households, as anyone who has had a bill clunk through their letter box will no doubt be aware. But they also make money by generating the power supplied to the UK's homes and businesses.

Companies which generate energy and supply it to consumers are described as 'vertically integrated'. All of the UK's big six energy companies are structured in this way.

The recent slew of headlines has largely been concerned with the bit of the businesses that supply power to consumers. But some of the energy companies make most of their money by generating and selling energy wholesale. Market regulator, Ofgem,  estimates that while supply profits are around 5 per cent, generation profits can be as high as 30 per cent.

We take a closer look at where the big six make money, how they differ, and what that could mean for future UK energy policy.

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Fossil fuel subsidies and the economics of energy transformation

  • 08 Nov 2013, 12:45
  • Mat Hope

The government gives the fossil fuel industry billions of pounds a year, according to a new thinktank report. With the costs of energy currently at the forefront of UK politics, the analysis has made a few headlines.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI)  suggests the UK government subsidised the fossil fuel industry to the tune of £4.3 billion in 2011 - around £7 per taxpayer. The UK ranks fifth on a global list of countries by total financial support given to carbon-intensive energy industries, the ODI says.

With the UK government legally  committed  to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonising the power sector, you might wonder why it is financially supporting the fossil fuel industry. But a closer look at the UK figures in the report suggests a more complicated picture.

Fossil fuel support

The ODI's report is based on data from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It estimates how much financial benefit fossil fuel industries - from coal power generators to oil refineries - get from a range of government energy policies.

The OECD estimates that the UK fossil fuel industry received £4.3 billion of support from government tax breaks and assistance toward infrastructure development in 2011.

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Rising costs or corporate greed? Exploring retail and wholesale energy price data

  • 05 Nov 2013, 18:00
  • Mat Hope

Politicians have been queuing up in recent weeks to interrogate the UK's big six energy companies after a spate of bill hikes. Last week,  energy bosses faced a group of MPs to justify their companies' profits, while the government announced the 18th energy market investigation since 2001. And today, the Labour leader renewed his assault on the sector, saying the recent price hikes were down to a  "broken market" and corporate greed.

Companies regularly justify swelling household bills by claiming they have to account for rising wholesale energy costs. But a  number of politicians and  newspapers have disagreed. They  point to data suggesting wholesale costs have increased by 1.6 per cent on average this year, while bills have increased by nearly 10 per cent, and have accused the companies of making excess profits.

Digging into the data suggests the relationship between costs and profits isn't as simple that criticism implies, however.

Wholesale versus retail prices

Working out how much profit energy companies are making requires untangling how much it costs them to supply energy.

Energy companies say the money from household bills has to cover a lot of costs, with a bit of profit for the big six's shareholders on top. In particular, the big six say they spend a lot of money buying gas and electricity to supply the UK's 26 million households.

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Climate scientists don’t think we’re heading for another "Little Ice Age"

  • 29 Oct 2013, 17:00
  • Roz Pidcock

From time to time, we're told by parts of the media that earth is headed for another 'little ice age'. Today was the turn of The Daily Express, in an  article urging us to "get ready" for erratic and extreme weather in the UK.

The paper claims experts warn Britain "faces a new mini-Ice Age with decades of severe Siberian winters and washout summers". But the scientist the paper cites tells us he feels "very misrepresented".

Inside out

The piece is loosely based on comments made by Professor Mike Lockwood from the University of Reading to BBC weatherman Paul Hudson for last night's  Inside Out programme.

The BBC programme looks back over recent cold winters in the UK and opens with the claim, "Scientists are warning that we could be heading towards a mini-ice age".

Hudson wrote up his take on the interview  here, beginning:

"It's known by climatologists as the 'Little Ice Age', a period in the 1600s when harsh winters across the UK and Europe were often severe. The severe cold went hand in hand with an exceptionally inactive sun, and was called the Maunder solar minimum.

Now a leading scientist from Reading University has told me that the current rate of decline in solar activity is such that there's a real risk of seeing a return of such conditions."

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