The UK subsidiary of German utility heavyweight RWE has revealed that it is studying the possibility of building a 'clean coal' power station at Tilbury, southeast England.

The project is aimed at reducing the firm’s CO2 emissions from its power generation fleet ahead of the forthcoming large combustion plant directive from the EU, which will restrict levels of carbon emissions from heavy industrial sites.

RWE npower believes that the plant could reduce carbon emissions by up to 90% compared to conventional coal-fired facilities. The project comes with a likely price tag of around GBP800 million and a potential opening date of 2016.

One of the technologies that RWE is looking to implement is carbon capture and storage – essentially burying carbon emissions underground in liquid form.

RWE’s study will also look into ‘supercritical’ plant technology that improves the efficiency of the combustion process together with carbon capture systems.

A key element of the study is to look at the transportation options and storage of carbon in geological formations (such as depleted oil reservoirs and depleted natural gas fields) to prevent it reaching the atmosphere.

While there has been some recent discussion of new coal plants in the UK, RWE’s move is the most tangible yet in this direction. Following the high profile ‘dash to gas’ of the 1980s and 1990s, many observers thought that a return to coal fuel in UK power generation was nigh on impossible. However advances in technology to burn coal more efficiently and more cleanly mean that generators are looking at the fuel in a more favorable light.

This willingness to reconsider coal power may also have been catalyzed by the soaring price of wholesale gas in recent months, while the big European players like RWE and compatriot E.ON continue to operate sizeable coal-burning fleets on the continent.

RWE’s choice of Tilbury, on the outskirts of London on the banks of the River Thames, may also be instructive. One issue facing coal generation is the need to supply large quantities of coal to the plant itself – something normally undertaken by rail. In the UK however, the rail network is facing both a mounting cost crisis and rising congestion, with the lines used to reach the major coal fired power stations in Yorkshire (such as the giant 4,000MW facility at Drax, near Selby) from import terminals on the west coast of Scotland already creaking at the seams, according to many transport specialists.

RWE may hope to sidestep this logistical issue by delivering coal up the Thames to Tilbury by boat, as there will be little scope for fitting dozens of coal deliveries onto the commuter rail network around London.