Powerful underground coal gasification argument to put Fife at fore of new industrial revolution

Fife has been witness to both the good and the bad of the coal industry.

It was once one of the Kingdom’s principal employers and, like the jute trade in Dundee, it was not unusual for whole families to work side-by-side down the pits.

It was hard, physical and often dangerous work for relatively little financial reward, but it put a roof over the head and food on the table and that was what mattered.

So the demise of the deep-pit coal industry had a devastating effect on communities across Fife. It is a scar on the collective psyche that remains to this day.

It is with that historical backdrop that I looked anew this week at plans by Cluff Natural Resources to use Fife as a testbed for underground coal gasification (UCG) a form of energy production which has never before been attempted in the UK.

Cluff is now seeking permissions to build a new plant on the banks of the Forth which can produce power from gas extracted from the burning of coal below the seabed.

The firm reckons there is enough untapped coal a mid-stream estimate has put the reserve at 335 million tonnes within its Kincardine Licence area in the Firth of Forth to provide power for millions of homes.

The company, led by North Sea oil industry veteran Algy Cluff, says it wants to work closely with local residents and other stakeholders as it progresses towards a UK-first facility.

However, CNR’s journey from concept to reality is not going to be an easy one.

Concern has already been expressed at the thought of Fife being used as a testing ground for what remains a relatively immature technology (despite its origins going back more than a century), and I would expect the nimby (Not In My Back Yard) lobby to grow in the months and years to come.

And then there is the technical challenge that will require to be overcome.

Setting fire to a seabed coal seam and then controlling that burn, the emissions it produces and creating electricity at the other end is by no means a simple process.

There is also the underground, and therefore unseen, environmental impact to be considered as the seam depletes and subsea subsidence becomes a potential issue.

Assuming those challenges can be met and the planners and regulators ultimately give the green-light, from my vantage point there remains one huge problem to the UCG plan and that is money.

Power stations don’t come cheap, and experimental power stations less so still.

AIM-listed Cluff is a relatively small concern it has a market valuation in the single-digit millions and I’d guess there would have to be a significant markets fundraise if this plan was ever to get off, or more accurately, into the ground.

For that reason alone I am sceptical that there will be any real progress on UCG for Fife in the next three to five years.

And while I share the environmental and safety concerns and would wish these to be thoroughly explored before any permissions were granted for a commercial UCG plant, I have less of an issue with Fife a Kingdom that has proved itself comfortable with coal in the past being used as a testbed for modern technologies in the sector.

Yes, one view could be that Fife is being used as a guinea pig.

But I prefer to think of it this way: if UCG works and can be made commercially viable, Fife could be at the forefront of a new industrial revolution.