Mankind will keep using fossil fuels to generate electricity for many decades to come, and will need all the help it can get to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, or CO2, that go with burning fossil fuels. That's according to Alstom, a leading manufacturer of power turbines and a company which sells equipment to make coal power stations cleaner and more efficient. It is also developing techniques to capture and store CO2.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts the need for electricity generation in 2030 will be twice as big as now, says Joan MacNaughton, Alstom's senior vice-president in charge of power and environmental policies. Some 70 per cent of that electricity will come from fossil fuels.
If you don't clean up that generation from fossil fuels, you're actually not tackling climate change, she says.
CO2 is one of the main contributors to the greenhouse effect that is believed to be raising the earth's temperature. Developing renewable energies is important -- and Alstom is involved in hydro-power stations such as the Three Gorges dam in China -- but in twenty years' time, the bulk of electricity will still come from fossil fuels.
In 2030, 60 per cent of C02 emissions in the power sector will come from stations that are already built or will have been built by 2015, says MacNaughton.
People in the developed world can turn down the heating in their homes, but the developing world's electricity needs are massive: some 1.6 billion people currently have no access to electricity. To give them electricity at an affordable price means using coal.
So it's a no-brainer. If you're going to tackle C02 emissions, you're really going to have to tackle clean power - clean power from clean coal and carbon capture and storage, says MacNaughton.
Boosting the efficiency of a fossil fuel power station by one percentage point leads to a reduction of CO2 emissions by more than two percentage points, she says.
Alstom has just inaugurated a C02 capture project at a small-scale pilot power station in Wisconsin, in the US. It uses chilled ammonia to capture carbon dioxide that will be either be used commercially or sequestered underground. Alstom hopes to move on to a large-scale demonstration plant at the start of the next decade, and to market that technology by 2015.
But large-scale demonstration plants may need fiscal incentives, as well as regulatory and carbon pricing framework, to get off the ground and on to the market, MacNaughton says.
A regulatory framework for carbon storage is particularly important to foster public confidence in that technology, she adds. People will need to be reassured that storing CO2 is safe, that it won't escape, and that there will be proper monitoring.
EU regulators are ahead of the game, by currently producing a set of rules for carbon storage, says MacNaughton who, before she joined Alstom in 2007, was a top UK civil servant overseeing energy issues.
While some companies complain that they are not given enough lead time to prepare for those regulations and make the necessary investment decisions, Alstom says it is less dependent on future rules. We are pretty persuaded there's going to be a need for that technology, and we invest quite a lot in research and development, MacNaughton says.
Still, we need a long-term signal about what the framework is going to be. And the sooner we get it, then the more chances we've got to tackle the climate change challenge, MacNaughton adds.