Clean Coal in the United Kingdom

The U.K. Marketplace for Clean Coal Technologies
Coal Power Plant
Clean coal is feasible but expensive

Editor’s Note: If anyone puts their lives on the line for the good of the economy, it’s coal miners. They supply us with our most reliable, abundant fuel, that dangerously acquired, dirty, gritty, grubby bit of fossilized biomass, compacted by earth and time, slick, black, burning coal.

Coal provides nearly 50% of the electrical generating fuel in the United States and similar percentages apply around the world. Coal is more abundant than oil, if fact, coal reserves are far more abundant than oil reserves. There is enough coal on the earth to supply all the current energy requirements of the entire planet for hundreds of years. Coal is many times more abundant than the reserves of all other fossil fuels combined.

Carbon dioxide is only one byproduct of coal burning. Without clean burning technologies, coal can produce deadly pollutants, something the English learned early, when urban coal burning on cold and still nights would produce “killer fogs”. Coal burning is creating serious air pollution around the world, and with coal production rising with no end in sight, not just carbon dioxide but more immediate and deadly pollutants should be cleaned out of the burning process. This is why we need clean coal technology.

This report by Gordon Feller of Urban Age Institute describes clean coal technologies and the companies that are investing today in clean coal technology in that earliest of industrial coal burning nations, the United Kingdom.

Clean Coal Technologies (CCT) is defined as technologies designed to enhance both the efficiency and the environmental acceptability of coal extraction, preparation and use.

These technologies reduce emissions of pollutants, reduce waste and increase the amount of energy gained from each ton of coal.

This article focuses on Clean Coal Technology for coal fired power generation, a segment that has not seen any new construction in the United Kingdom since the 1981, yet continues to generate up to 40% of the electricity produced in the UK.

International Energy Agency Logo
Energy Agency

Recent UK legislation has sought to limit the production of major pollutants from coal fired power plants, namely sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx), both of which cause acid rain and carbon dioxide (CO2). Implementation of this legislation will require new investment in CCT in order for coal fired plants to continue operating at current output levels. At the same time, there is concern among power generation companies that the high cost of additional CCT investment required to comply with the new legislation may not provide an acceptable return on investment.

In addition to identifying power generation industry trends in the U.K., we cover the legislation that will impact this market and create opportunities for American companies involved with CCT.

As indicated in the table below, there has been no new construction of coal-fired plants since 1981. These plants are based on mature technologies including Pulverised Coal Combustion (PCC) with subcritical steam driving a turbine with various levels of flue gas cleaning. Most recent technologies, such as supercritical steam, have been retrofit options that increase thermal efficiencies. While power companies may not consider new plant investment for another 10-15 years, they are currently investing in CCTs to overhaul their sites and gain efficiencies and reduce pollutants.

Coal-Fired Power Plants in the United Kingdom
40% of the U.K.’s electricity is coal generated

Coal is an important segment of the energy mix in the UK: As recently as 1990 coal fired generation provided over 75% of the country’s electricity. However, gas fired generation has become increasingly due to lower emissions of pollutants, lower gas prices and increasingly efficient gas power generation technology. A reversal has occurred in recent years with coal fired plants seeing a renaissance due to increased oil and gas prices, uncertainty over the future of nuclear power and the slow adoption of renewable energy.

EU legislation has been the main driver of new clean coal technologies for coal fired power generation. The revised Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) 2001/80/EC seeks to limit the emissions of NOx, SO2 and dust from combustion plants above 50 megawatts (thermal) that are using solid, liquid and gaseous fuels. The new limits will come into force in 2008 and will be revised down further in 2016. To meet this obligation, power companies can either: (a) comply with emission limit values (ELV) for NOx, SO2, and particles or (b) operate within a “National Plan.” The National Plan sets an annual level of emissions calculated by applying the ELV approach to plants licensed before 1 July 1987 based on the average actual operating hours, fuel used and thermal input over the period of 1995-2000.

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U.S. National Energy
Technology Laboratory

To comply with EU legislation, individual plants may also opt-out and agree to limit future operations to a maximum of 20,000-hours post January 2008 or until 2015, whichever is soonest. A typical investment to comply with this directive would be Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) of emissions, a CCT that only a few plants have used to date. The UK is also a signatory to the Kyoto protocol, and through the European Union, has specific targets to reduce CO2, the first of which is to cut 2010 emissions to 20% below the 1990 level. One way to accomplish this objective is the use of emissions trading schemes. The original UK Emissions Trading Scheme (UK-ETS) successfully spurred investment in CO2 emissions reducing technologies. As of January 2005, phase one of the EU-ETS has replaced the UK scheme.

In the short-term, major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions have been made possible by improving generation efficiency (yielding a reduction in carbon dioxide produced per megawatt of electricity generated) and by substituting a proportion of the coal with biomass (biomass co-firing). For existing plants, up to a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (and fuel consumption) is possible by retrofitting Advanced Supercritical Boilers and modifying the steam turbines within the existing power station. Further reductions of 10 to 20% are possible by using CO2 neutral biomass (typically 5-10% by pre-blending biomass with coal and a further 10% by direct injection of biomass through dedicated ports or burners). Finally, another 10% reduction is possible by using gas turbines for Feed Water Heating. In total these measures can bring the carbon dioxide emissions down to the level of a gas-fired CCGT plant.

For the longer term, CCTs that have attracted interest in the UK include the following:

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) – Involves capturing CO2 gases and transporting them to geological storage sites, such as the North Sea where enhanced oil recovery may be another use of this technology. This technology is in the development stage but is popular with the British government, which has pledged research & development funds for CCS.

World Coal Institute Logo
World Coal Institute

Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) – Still at the development stage, but plants built in the U.S. Spain, Holland and Japan has shown promising results. There are no IGCC plants in the U.K., although building plans have been submitted. IGCC has some benefits over PCC for CO2 capture and lower emissions of SO2and NOx.

Fluidized Bed Combustion (FBC) technology – Includes Circulating FBC (CFBC) and Bubbling FBC (BFBC), utilizes low grade, variable quality coal plus biomass and municipal waste to meet emissions requirements. The UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has provided $5 million for small-scale research; there are no commercial developments to date.

Who will most likely benefit from the changes underway within the UK’s clean coal technology sector?

–Power plant operators and other large combustion plant operators (iron and steel plants, refineries, cement kilns): This group has an interest in purchasing CCT that will extend the life of its coal fired power plants, comply with environmental legislation and help the development of new, efficient plants, such as IGCC. Several of these companies have R & D capabilities in the UK that are linked to engineering companies and Dept. of Trade and Industry clean coal technology programs.

–Power engineering companies: Develop technologies and construct plants through turnkey contracts or the supply of major components such as boilers and turbines. The DTI estimates there are over 600 UK companies are involved in power engineering in the U.K., employing some 150,000 staff. These companies include large global players such as Mitsui Babcock, Siemens, GE Power Systems and Alstom Power.

–Process engineering companies: Design and deliver power and industrial process plants that incorporate CCT such as FGD scrubbers, and other environmental and increased efficiency projects. The UK is a world center for process engineering companies including Foster Wheeler, Jacobs, Kellogg Brown and Root, Fluor and AMEC.

United States Power Line
45% of the USA’s electricity is from coal

–Fossil fuel supply companies: Supply coal products that meet new technological and environmental requirements such as less dust and pulverised and low ash coals. Oil and gas producers have geo-physical and geochemical skills necessary to identify and operate CO2 storage facilities.

–Project developers: Companies that put together projects to meet objectives for investors and operators. The UK’s financial sector is one of largest and most diverse, with experience in planning, due diligence, environmental impact assessment, finance, and project management.

–Offshore engineering and service companies: These companies are experienced in offshore oil and gas operations, and would have the transferable skills for implementing CCS offshore. Companies already experienced in North Sea operations include Halliburton, Schlumberger, Wood Group, Baker Hughes and Cooper Cameron.

Multinational power engineering companies such as Mitsui Babcock, Alstom Power, ABB and Siemens have local manufacturing, installation or service operations in the UK. These companies are well established and have consolidated the industry by acquiring domestic competitors. Siemens has purchased Plessey in the UK and Westinghouse Fossil Fuels in the US. Alstom Power has acquired much of the General Electric Company (GEC) infrastructure in the UK. Multinational air pollution monitoring and control companies include Johnson Matthey (UK), Haldor Topsoe (Denmark) and Durr Environmental (Germany).

There are many smaller UK companies that manufacture and supply a variety of air pollution control equipment and process controls that can be considered competitors. Two such companies are Enviro Technology Services Plc (which provides Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems (CEMS), stack testing equipment and combustion control equipment) and ACWa Air Ltd (which provides air pollution control and gas cleaning systems).

Official trade and investment data on air pollution abatement services are not separately reported by industrialized countries. Additionally, official trade data provide little insight regarding exports and imports of air pollution abatement goods, or investment in this industry segment. The Harmonized System of Product Classification (HS) does not characterize or differentiate between goods on the basis of whether or not they are used for air pollution control. One industry source estimated that total world exports of air pollution abatement services amounted to $430 million in 2004. The principal countries exporting such services included the USA (49 percent), Japan (31 percent), and the EU (17 percent). Leading import markets include China (22 percent), the USA (19 percent), and the EU (18 percent).

Coal Utilization Research Council Logo
Coal Utilization Research Council

The UK is a mature market and many of the international power and process engineering companies are present. The opportunity for product and service exports to the UK is dependent on a product’s unique differentiation. New technologies or processes that enable plants to meet tougher emissions requirements at less cost would be well received by plant operators. Developments that make IGCC, FBCs and CCS more cost effective will also be in demand. Products such as new membranes, chemical absorbers and catalysts to reduce the costs of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) plants are just a few examples.

Clean coal technologies comprise a wide range of products that can be combined into projects of various sizes. These could vary from technical upgrades for existing operations to brand new turnkey installations. Many of the components of these projects may require specific certification and/or permits. For example, electric goods may require a CE (Conformite Europeene) mark and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) registration. Permits may also be required for goods subject to quotas, such as steel. However, in general, imports of industrial goods do not require import licenses or permits.

Products that require import permits (and some that do not) also require a certificate of origin if stipulated on the Import List or in the import permit. The official agency in the country of origin must issue such certificates. EU-wide patents can be obtained by filing an application with the European Patent Office in Munich. Patents in the European Union are valid for 20 years, but extensions can be granted for products that require long approval time.

About the Author: Gordon Feller is the CEO of Urban Age Institute ( During the past twenty years he has authored more than 500 magazine articles, journal articles or newspaper articles on the profound changes underway in politics, economics, and ecology – with a special emphasis on sustainable development. Gordon is the editor of Urban Age Magazine, a unique quarterly which serves as a global resource and which was founded in 1990. He can be reached at and he is available for speaking to your organization about the issues raised in this and his other numerous articles published in EcoWorld.

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