Rohan Courtney on UCG energy | Clean Coal Ltd | Video

World Finance interviews Rohan Courtney, Chairman of Clean Coal Ltd, on the economic case for underground coal gasification, and its potential for energy production around the world

October 2, 2013

Coal mining is a messy and expensive business to dig out something that we’re simply going to burn. So why bother? Can’t we just burn it where it is? Well, we can: it’s called underground coal gasification (UCG), and it’s not a new idea. But it is the new panacea for Britain’s energy needs. Rohan Courtney from Clean Coal Ltd discusses the technology and economics of underground coal gasification, the potential for UCG reserves in the UK and around the world, and addresses the environmental concerns around the technology.

World Finance: Let’s start if you would with a brief explanation of how the technology works for underground coal gasification.

Rohan Courtney: It’s all done underground. 500m, 1km down, a long way underground. So, from the surface, a long way. So, you’ve got a coal seam, a lovely coal seam. It’s probably surrounded by rock, okay? You drill two wells. The first well is to ignite – everyone gets so frightened about ignite, but you’re talking about converting, you know, by pressure, this coal into gas.

The other well has the synthetic gas coming up the other well. So, what you’re doing is, everything underground. So it’s very simple, a very simple process.

“UCG has the potential to provide energy for hundreds of years”

World Finance: I mentioned that it’s not a new idea, what is it recently that’s made it an economically viable energy solution?

Rohan Courtney: The high cost of oil – oil has increased and increased and increased in terms of the problem that all oil companies have in finding more oil. So therefore they go from the low-hanging fruit to the most difficult.

UCG on the other hand, of course, is quite the opposite. We’re starting this now – even though it’s been around for 100 years – the real activity is now. So actually, what you’re finding is you’re going for the low-hanging fruit. It’s unmineable coal that you’re looking for. And also it’s security of supply, it’s all those things that you really want in terms of the activity for energy.

I know people are very concerned about, you know, the way that their planet should be used. But at the same time we need energy.

World Finance: It’s not just the energy industry that’s interested in this synthetic gas, it does have other uses?

Rohan Courtney: Well it’s not just power, it’s not just electricity. It’s also used for fertiliser, it’s used for liquid fuels, there’s many other reasons that you use syngas.

“Our job, my job, is to explain it. What we do at Clean Coal is to have public exhibitions, we explain everything we do.”

World Finance: So as you say, oil prices are going up. Your operational costs and your capital costs as well are cheaper. What are the challenges that you face?

Rohan Courtney: Public perception. We’ve lost confidence in government, we’ve lost confidence in energy companies. And so rightly, the man in the street thinks – what are you doing? You know, burning coal underground? Our job, my job, is to explain it. What we do at Clean Coal is to have public exhibitions, we explain everything we do. And why wouldn’t you want to explain? I mean, we don’t do it under people’s houses, that’s a different thing. But it’s quite right that they ask these questions.

World Finance: One of the public perception problems that UCG has is its environmental impact, what do you say to those criticisms?

Rohan Courtney: The CO2 we capture; it stays underground. If it doesn’t stay underground then you can transport it in pipeline elsewhere. So, nothing actually goes into the atmosphere. So, environmentally, you know, the CO2 issue is dealt with, but also, more importantly, all the rubbish – all the ash and toxics and all that stuff – stays underground where it should be. So it’s a pretty clean, it’s a very clean, fuel.

World Finance: And if those perception problems can be overcome, what is the potential for UCG in the UK and around the world?

Rohan Courtney: You know, this is unmineable coal. Unmineable coal around the world is the biggest resource of the world. If you add oil, gas, solar, whatever you name it – put them all together, it still doesn’t get to coal. Unmineable coal. So, there’s no reason why anybody would want to pick a site that’s the wrong site, for example, you just have this great resource.

In the UK, as it happens, we have a huge amount under our land. We have a huge amount under the North Sea, and we have a huge amount under the Irish Sea. So, there’s a lot of potential.

Maybe the potential for energy – if you want to do it that way, in UCG – for hundreds of years.

World Finance: Rohan, thank you very much.

Rohan Courtney: My pleasure.