Yet the addition of a special device to capture the carbon dioxide produced by the coal and then store it in deep geologic formations in the North Sea could change everything – not just here, but around the world.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is more than just a political platform on which the Scottish National Party has climbed to bolster its no-nukes policy. It is a technology that represents the best hope for salvation from the climate-changing consequences of burning fossil fuel.

At the same time, it could also thrust Scotland to the forefront in the battle against global warming – assuming, of course, that it works.

Critics of CCS argue that the technology remains expensive, energy intensive and largely untested.

However, its proponents – chief among them ScottishPower, which owns and operates Longannet – regard it as the Holy Grail of the coal industry, not to mention the future of Scotland’s technology and engineering sectors.

In spite of its critics, CCS – much more than solar, wind and wave power or other renewable forms of energy generation – remains Scotland’s most important potential green technology for export.

The ScottishPower project, inspired by a £1bn prize from a government competition to develop clean-coal power plant, is focused on a “retrofit” project at Longannet, where a prototype carbon capture unit has been in place since May 2009.

A ScottishPower spokesman yesterday told The Herald: “In the UK, we have a unique opportunity, through the government’s CCS competition, to get ahead of the game and take a lead in a technology that could be exported around the globe. It is something in which Scotland and the UK could lead the world.

“In China alone, coal plants the size of Longannet are going up every 10 days – but there is also enormous scope in Asia, South America, Africa and North America.

“It is estimated that there are around 20,000 thermal plants currently operating around the world, and the early development of CCS offers both an environmental and economic opportunity for Scotland.”

Asked about concerns over the technology being expensive, energy intensive and essentially untried, the ScottishPower spokesman said recent tests had resulted in a “major breakthrough” in reducing the amount of energy required to separate carbon emissions from a coal-fired power plant.

The spokesman said: “Reducing the energy required in capturing carbon dioxide is seen as a critical step in reducing the overall costs of carbon capture and storage, bringing the reality of a successful commercial scale project one step closer.

“Testing at Longannet will continue until February and scientists believe this technology is ready to be applied successfully at full scale demonstration.”

The government originally planned to fund up to four large-scale demonstration coal-fired power stations that can capture and store carbon emissions.

However, as it stands, only two contestants remain and it is expected to confirm this month that a ScottishPower-led consortium and one fronted by German giant E.ON are the pair left.

Late last year, the consortium of Denmark’s DONG Energy, RWE Npower and Peel Energy announced it would no longer participate in the contest. And RWE Npower said it will submit a planning application for a new coal-fired power plant using carbon capture technology at its Aberthaw plant in south Wales – but that project apparently sits outside the competition.

At the same time, the ScottishPower consortium – which includes Shell, National Grid and Aker Clean Carbon – has long claimed it is the only entrant in the £1bn competition capable of delivering a full-scale working demonstration plant at its existing operation at Longannet by the 2014 deadline.

E.ON announced in November it would delay the construction of a new plant at Kingsnorth, southeast of London, for at least three years – rendering the project late, but still in the running.

Meanwhile, Nick Horler, chief executive of ScottishPower, has also insisted the energy company’s Spanish parent Iberdrola remains committed to making the UK a centre of excellence for CCS development if it wins the £1bn competition.

It has said a significant chunk of the estimated 30,000-60,000 jobs expected to be created in engineering, manufacturing and procurement to support the clean coal industry would be based in Scotland.

A spokesman for ScottishPower said: “Of course, we can’t say all these jobs would be based in Scotland, but a very large number of them certainly would be based here.

“If we win, we remain committed to basing a centre of excellence for carbon capture and storage development in Scotland. Also, many of the largest storage areas are in the central North Sea, which logically feed into central Scotland, so that too would create jobs here.”

A ScottishPower victory would also be good news for the Scottish coal industry, whose sulphurous produce is currently considered not green enough to be used in power plants. ScottishPower envisages using the same pipeline network that brings energy into the UK for sending the extracted carbon dioxide the other way– from central Scotland down to Teesside and out to porous rocks in the North Sea.

At the same time, the North Sea carbon storage capacity is about 400 billion tons and is estimated to be worth about €2.9 trillion (£2.6 trillion).

The SNP’s energy policy aside, the prospect of a multi-trillion dollar market and saving the planet is clearly a goal

worth pursuing.