Unlocking the potential for Underground Coal Gasification in the UK

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With the need to diversify the UK energy market becoming increasingly pressing, new technologies are continually developing and evolving the market. One such technology which is gaining increased attention across the energy industry is Underground Coal Gasification (UCG).

UCG uses stranded coal seams, which cannot be accessed by conventional mining techniques due to geology, safety or depth constraints, and converts this in-situ coal into a mixture of gasses known as syngas, which can then be used for power generation. UCG is not a new concept; trials have taken place across the course of the last century. However, technological advancements have prompted a resurgence in the industry, with the UK tipped to be a key area to watch. The UK is ideally suited to the development of UCG due to its large indigenous coal resources. UCG also provides opportunities for developing much-needed cost effective cleaner coal technologies, diversity of supply and energy security for the UK.

UCG also holds a wealth of advantages over other forms of energy generation. UCG does not use chemicals or fracking, the depth at which UCG operations are undertaken are situated far below fresh water aquifers and thus avoid water contamination, and UCG holds substantial environmental benefits over conventional coal fired power generation. UCG is also ideally suited for use in conjunction with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), technology that the UK government is very eager to utilise. Combining these two technologies provides an incredibly promising opportunity for low carbon power generation, and one of a very small number of methods that will enable the ongoing use of fossil fuels without the current environmental damage they cause.

UCG technology is also incredibly flexible. Rather than being restricted to simply providing gas directly into the grid, UCG also has the potential to play a significant role in providing feedstock for the petrochemical industry and a cost effective fuel source for energy intensive industry. UCG also has possibilities for generating hydrogen for vehicles and fuel cells, and supporting primary electricity generation.

One organisation pioneering the development of the UCG industry in the UK is Cluff Natural Resources (CLNR). Founded in 2012 by veteran North Sea entrepreneur Algy Cluff, CLNR has committed to the development of the UK’s first UCG operations since the 1950’s, and already has a growing portfolio of UK assets including 8 UCG licences. CLNR’s current UCG licences cover the North Wales/Merseyside border, Durham South, Maryport, North Cumbria, Largo Bay Durham North, Carmarthenshire and the Dee Estuary, The Firth of Forth near Kincardine, Scotland.

The UCG industry in the UK is still in the early stages of development, however it has the potential to become a key element of the UK energy industry. Andrew Nunn, Chief Operating Officer for CLNR has commented that ‘the industry, quite rightly, is taking a very measured approach to the development of UCG.  In line with the comprehensive body of evidence published by DECC, and its predecessors, the next step for UCG in the UK is a small number of production tests to confirm commercial and environmental performance in a local context, before rolling out a larger commercial UCG development’.

CLNR recently entered into a joint venture with Halliburton to accelerate the development of the Kincardine UCG project. On the recent partnership, Andrew has commented that ‘Halliburton’s commitment is a great endorsement of both the technical and commercial viability of UCG on a local and global scale. They are one of the world’s leading providers of subsurface engineering and services to the energy industry and this relationship gives us access to experience and technologies from across Halliburton’s global product lines. This includes their high temperature geothermal products, SAGD/TAGD experience and a vast array of monitoring and instrumentation technologies which are all directly applicable to UCG operations. This technically lead collaboration will ensure the approach to designing and operating the UCG production test will be subject to the same rigorous processes as other major energy projects’.

As with other energy initiatives, such as the shale gas industry, the success of the UCG industry will be determined by public opinion. Andrew has noted that in order to develop a thriving UCG industry in the UK, ‘key regulators must be technically capable, politically empowered and sufficiently funded to take a very hands role during the developmental phase of the UCG industry’, in order to assure local communities that UCG operations are being conducted ‘in a safe and responsible manner’. The difference between UCG and many other energy industries is the foundation that it will be built upon. Andrew has highlighted that ‘one of the key differentiator’s for UCG is that the industry is being built on a strong scientific evidence base which was compiled by the UK Government over a period of 10 years in the absence of any external commercial influence, so the basis for progressive government policy is in place’.

The next five years will be key to the development of the UK UCG industry and CLNR already have plans in place for the development of the industry. Andrew has outlined as follows; ‘We are currently preparing the Environmental Statement and Planning Application documentation for our proposed UCG production test in the Firth of Forth which we plan to submit towards the end of the year.  Following approval the focus will be on drilling and construction of the production facilities to support approximately 200 days of gasification operations, followed by decommissioning of the surface equipment and validation of environmental performance. All the data gathered will be used to book reserves and underpin a full bankable feasibility study for a fully optimised commercial development within the Firth of Forth’.

Despite the promise that the UCG industry holds it is likely to be 2020 at the earliest before we see commercial development of the industry. However, with Cluff Natural Resources continually working to develop the industry and a target production test date of early 2017, the UCG industry is undoubtedly a key area to watch within the UK energy industry. Industry leaders from across the energy sector will meet to discuss the promising UCG industry at the Third European Shale Gas & Oil Summit, taking place 15th-16th October, in a conference dedicated to this developing technology.

For more information regarding the summit visit the website at http://www.esgos.eu/

By Megan.Roden@charlesmaxwell.co.uk

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