The UK risks looking foolish if it doesn’t address its coal problem

Instead of an exit strategy, the government have been laying the groundwork for a continuation of coal.

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Instead of an exit strategy, the government have been laying the groundwork for a continuation of coal

This week has seen the UK government attempt to take a leadership role in climate action with a joint UK-China statement on the ‘clear imperative’ to tackle ‘one of the greatest global challenges we face’. Government representatives have also been pushing for international action at the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

The government are keen to promote their progress on the world stage and there are reasons why this is justified. The introduction of a Climate Change Act in 2008 was a world first; Ed Davey’s leadership of the Green Growth Group over the last few years has been effective at promoting the low-carbon economy within the EU; and this week’s joint statement with China was a genuinely useful step towards negotiating an international agreement on climate change.

However, the UK government is at risk of losing face because, whilst we have made some good progress on climate policy, we still have no clear exit strategy from coal, the most carbon intensive means of generating power.

Instead of an exit strategy, the government have actually been laying the groundwork for a continuation of coal.

In the same week they have been trumpeting their climate credentials they have sent representatives to a meeting in Seville to try to water down regulations for coal-fired power stations.

The Seville meeting was part of a process for setting the air pollution standards that ‘large combustion plants’ must meet from 2019 onwards, known as BREF. Unfortunately, this process is impossibly complicated and so government have had to rely on the expertise of big energy companies – the same companies that will be affected by the regulations. A number of the UK’s ‘officials’ in this process are indeed energy company employees.

The government are also just finalising the details of a ‘capacity market’ which will give handouts to coal generators to make sure they stay online AND they have just commissioned some consultants to report on the costs involved for old power stations to extend their lives.

These are not signs of a government trying its hardest to reduce coal use, cut emissions, and address climate change. Greenpeace analysis has found that 10GW of coal, half the current capacity, could stay online through the 2020’s, largely thanks to government support.

Obviously reducing carbon emissions is not the only objective of a power system, it must also provide secure and affordable supply. This is why the government are looking to keep coal online – they believe it is secure and affordable.

But a power station is only as secure as its fuel supply. With the majority of our coal (45 per cent) coming from Russia it doesn’t look like the most secure option. In fact far more of our coal comes from Russia than our gas

And in terms of affordability – it is true that coal generation is cheap at the moment but due to the eccentricities of our power market, coal generators will be paid a price for their power that is set by the price of gas. So coal is profitable, not affordable. Consumers see little saving on their bills because coal is kept online

It is also important to note that the longer coal stations are kept online, the less attractive it is to build any new capacity. This means that more consumer money will be required to incentivise investment in the new generation the country needs

Security and affordability aside, it is indisputable that coal is the most damaging fuel source for the climate. The government’s official advisers have recommended that the power sector must reduce its carbon intensity from the current 500g per kilowatt hour of electricity to 50g by 2030 if we are to meet our legal climate targets. Coal has a carbon intensity of 1000g so it is difficult to see how it can remain online if the government is serious about meeting it’s targets.

More than any other energy source, coal is viewed internationally as a yardstick of climate action. No country can credibly claim to be addressing carbon emissions whilst unabated coal remains part of the energy mix. Last year 36 per cent of UK electricity came from coal, more than from any other fuel source.

Both the US and China have recently announced plans to limit coal use. The UK is in danger of being left behind and of looking foolish on the world stage for promoting climate leadership without addressing the coal problem on its own doorstep.

Dr Jimmy Aldridge is a campaign researcher and analyst for Greenpeace and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

14 Responses to “The UK risks looking foolish if it doesn’t address its coal problem”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    Well, the choices for base load are coal or nuclear.
    Germany shows what happens when you abandon the nuclear option.

    The greenpeace choice of “turn the lights off”…well, rich people can afford generators.

    Also, the price we pay has very little to do with power pricing, thanks to the very very silly structure of the UK power market, which isn’t based on something sensible like a carbon tax.

  2. Fredrik

    “Base load” is term used by people who do not understand how the power system works. A wind power unit is just as good as a coal or nuclear power electron. The system can swallow large variabilities, as shown in Denmark, Spain and Portugal which got 25-30 per cent of their electricity from wind in 2013. The rich do not buy generators in any of these countries because there are no large-scale blackouts or frequency deviations. Strong wind: turn down fuel power or hydro. Weak wind: turn it up. That is what you have to do to balance consumption.
    Germany has successfully phased out some of its nuclear and some of its fossil energy by phasing in wind, solar and biomass. However it has also increased its power exports, which leaves too much room for fossils, especially the very dirty lignite. But they have not switched from nuclear to coal, and have also no blackouts.
    With VERY much variable power sources, you need to think about balancing, either through more export and import, more demand side management or through storage.
    The solution for the UK can’t be UK hydro as there is not very much of it.
    The solution is Norwegian hydro. A cable is supposed to be in place by 2020, but it could be built by 2017 or 2018 and could balance a lot more wind power, while more coal power is being shut down. (New nuclear is not even an option in this timescale, so it is completely irrelevant in the discussion on how to avoid blackouts.

  3. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes yes, the people who work and study in the field don’t understand how it works.
    Thanks for the anti-power propagit there.

    Germany *is* building new dirty coal plants – maybe 15% less polluting than the 1970’s ones – to replace imported energy, and has very high energy prices (still) which is causing a major economic drag. Rather than nuclear power plants. Because it’s the only way they’ll avoid blackouts.

    “Balancing” means “cutting power if there is not enough generation”. There’s no two ways about it…and “smart meters” mean poorer areas can be selectively targeted. Or, as you note, massively expensive imports currently…of French nuclear energy. “Swallow” means waste in many cases, or massively expensive “storage” schemes with little impact. And it still needs to be paid for…and of course the infrastructure needs massive, expensive adaptions to handle the fluctuations.

    “Norwegian hydro” still be very expensive…and making us reliant on their capacity, when we’ll be far from their only customer (and it’s based on overly optimistic generation numbers, too, afaik).

    It’s 36 months for new nuclear, if we take an existing design.

    …And it leads to not being dependent on other countries having excess generation, is far cheaper than importing power…and can lead to things like a hydrogen economy for cars, which isn’t going to be feasible otherwise.

    It’s also dependent on Canada and Australia for the small proportion of costs which are fuel, not cheap and dirty Chinese manufacturing. And won’t lead to the poor’s light’s going off…reduced usage by the poor here because prices are already too high has been countered by the power companied by phasing out plans with no standing charges.

    But the Greens don’t mention that, do they? In fact, their plans require higher standing charges. Which is going to mean a lot, lot more people “voluntarily” disconnecting, or just not feeding the meters (which are also not something not talked about..)

    The “winners” of renewable energy have been the power companies and rich landowners, and now the power companies will get more and more cash to prevent blackouts, handouts on the back of the poor.

  4. Fredrik

    OK. The Greens are conspiring with the power companies to build more coal power stations. Nobody ever does anything remotely sensible in any country. Hidden agendas with the darkest motives abound. We will soon have no electricity system at all.
    Anything else?

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    So you have no answer to my points. Just nonsense, an attempt at making light of raising the power bills sharply for the poor.

    So sorry you cannot possible consider other views, have to ignore the facts which don’t suit your mantras – good exclusionary orwellian thought practice there from you.

  6. SadButMadLad

    “Dr Jimmy Aldridge is a campaign researcher and analyst for Greenpeace and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward” and a useful idiot for Russia.

    Greenpeace are so worried about the UK’s affect on global climate yet they do nothing to stop China’s affect on the climate. The UK’s affect is less than 1%, yet the vast majority of anthropogenic climate change is by China and Russia. Greenpeace go out of their way to make the UK the nasty one when they do nothing at all at stopping China from filling the atmosphere with CO2. If Greenpeace was really bothered about the climate and the environment they would be in China committing terrorist, sorry protection, acts to stop China’s development of coal power stations. You’d think that Greenpeace are China’s puppets, not Russia’s.

    That Greenpeace are bothered about the UK’s 1% but not China is like the way they are bothered about fracking which creates fractures in the rock nanometers in size tens of thousands of meters underground yet they do nothing to stop the bigger holes in the ground via which CO2 polluting fuel is extracted. Coal to you and me. Why aren’t Greenpeace actively picketing and closing down coal mines NOW?

  7. Henry Tinsley

    This is tripe. Greenpeace is an international organization, not one solely involved in the UK. Have you not noticed that they campaign on international issues, and that several of their activists were recently locked up by the Russians?

  8. SadButMadLad

    They might be international, but they only work for the rich in the west. They do their best to stop developing countries develop. Look at how GP stopped a hydro scheme in Chile and hinder India as it increases it’s energy output to make its economy grow. GP are pro the 1%. GP are not for the environment.

    As for being locked up by the Russians, the Ruskies do everything to further the selling of their gas. GP haven’t stopped the Russians drilling for gas, its just a publicity exercise to get my donations. GP have stopped fracking in the UK though and that benefits the Russians. Both ways the Russians win, plausible deniability over the Arctic Sunrise case and a market for their gas in Europe because no UK gas.

  9. Henry Tinsley

    Greenpeace are for the 1% and not for the environment? They can reasonably be criticised for many things, but this is just a silly and paranoid view.

  10. ShaleGasExpert

    So what’s the solution? Could it include gas? Gas has no issues with competing fuels (including efficiency) but Greenpeace policy is actively hostile to locally produced natural gas.
    Nice to commend the advances in reducing coal by the US and China, but Greenpeace seems to have instant amnesia by ignoring the substantial (but not total of course) role of natural gas.

  11. ShaleGasExpert

    If there was a carbon tax, the choice for base load would be natural gas, not coal. =

  12. Leon Wolfeson

    That’s based on unrealistic propositions based in turn on unrestricted fracking, your name’s rather a giveaway.

  13. Leon Wolfeson

    He’s right. For the wrong reason.

    That’d be their opposition to nuclear power.

  14. SadButMadLad

    The fact that one of their directors, Pascal Hustings, flies between his home in Luxembourg and the office in Netherlands and has been for a number of years shows that they don’t care about the environment or global warming. They only care about increasing the size and influence of Greenpeace, all to increase their salaries.

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