I’m thinking of launching a competition, with a prize of £1 billion for the lucky winner. My competition is for the organisation that can produce a working power plant which breaches the first law of thermodynamics (which says, roughly, that you can’t cook kippers on ice). What’s that? The UK government has beaten me to it? Goodness, so it has. Some blitherer called Charles Hendry, masquerading as an energy minister, has told the BBC all about his exciting new £1 billion competition for practical carbon capture and storage (CCS).

This is the energy equivalent of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. You mine the coal, burn it in a power station and then capture the CO2 it produces, before injecting it into some underground cavern, measureless to man, where it can sit and sulk for a few millennia. Hendry managed to keep a straight face (well, it sounded straight) on the radio this week as he made his historic announcement, claiming how CCS could be “an absolute game-changer”. Perhaps he hadn’t read the report from the National Audit Office that came out last month into the previous competition to turn base coal into green energy.

The report stops short of saying that it can’t be done, but it’s still a pretty grim read for true green believers. Each step of this process may be tolerably well understood, but the risks and complexities of putting them all together, and actually getting more power out than you put in, are awesome. After spending £64 million, the department where Hendry works withdrew last October with as much dignity as it could muster. As he may not have had the heart to tell the BBC, even the £1 billion is not news, since the offer was confirmed when the previous competition collapsed.

If Britain really could make CCS work, it would indeed lead the world, since nobody else has done so. They’re trying in Texas and Mississippi and it all sounds quite splendid on the websites, but as Reuters’ John Kemp points out: “There is a growing gulf between the soaring rhetoric and political imperative to make CCS work, and the messy technical and commercial reality on the ground preventing its successful implementation.” The Economist magazine, in a long analysis, concluded that “for the moment, at least, CCS is mostly hot air.”

You don’t have to be an engineer to see why, but it helps. Imagine trying to capture the smoke from a coal fire; the pressure gradient which draws air into the fire is dependent on the hot gases escaping. If they can’t escape, the fire goes out, so to maintain the airflow the flue gases must be extracted, compressed, transported and finally stored. The estimated capital cost of a CCS plant is well over £1 billion, while the process (if it works) absorbs most of the useful energy that even a modern power plant can extract from the coal.

Hendry was right about one thing. He talked of a “game-changer” in energy. There is one. It’s called shale gas, and over the next decade it will keep the lights on despite the random mixture of windmills, old nuclear and coal power stations that make up Britain’s shambolic energy policy today.

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