The new coal rush

Posted by bex — 30 April 2007 at 4:36pm - Comments

Ferrybridge power station

In 1974, the BBC launched Ceefax, Richard Nixon was kicked out of office and the last new coal-fired power station was built in the UK. Most things have moved on a fair bit since then – but apparently not for the UK's energy companies.

Coal – the most polluting of all fuels in the most polluting of all sectors – may be about to stage a major comeback in the UK. In December last year, the energy giant Eon applied to build the first new coal-fired generating units in the UK in 33 years and now Medway Council in Kent is considering the application. Staggeringly, each of the two units Eon proposes would emit more carbon dioxide than 24 of the world’s lowest emitting countries combined.

By producing energy close to where it is used and capturing waste heat, decentralised energy can more than double the efficiency of power stations.The units they're proposing don’t even have the capacity for heat capture. In fact, the units are only 45 per cent efficient, meaning that most of the energy is lost as waste heat before it even reaches the transmission lines – pretty scandalous in an age where countries like Denmark are achieving up to 90 per cent efficiency in their power plants.

If Eon is given permission to build these new units at its Kingsnorth power plant, this could be the start of a whole spate of new applications for coal plants. Under New Labour, coal has become cheaper to burn than the less polluting natural gas – as a result, its use has risen under Tony Blair, and the issue looks set to be Gordon Brown's first true test on climate change, within weeks of his taking office.

Given a chance, energy companies will lead the UK into more unnecessary carbon dioxide emissions and energy wastage for the life span of the new plants - around 50 years. It's already going to require a massive effort across the country to quickly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to a level where dangerous climate change can be avoided. If Kingsnorth is allowed to go ahead, our chances of success will be far, far lower.

A couple of months ago, we sent out an e-update explaining that coal may be facing a renaissance in the UK. Now is the time to act; the local council in Kent is now considering the application. If you have a few minutes to spare, please help us to make sure the new coal rush never has a chance to get off the ground: write a letter to Chris Butler, the planning officer in charge at Medway Council. The UK doesn't need more outdated, inefficient coal fired power plants. We need an energy system that can meet the demands of the 21st century: decentralised energy, based on energy efficiency and renewables.

Hi Seawolf

First the application has to go through Medway Council; if they refuse, the application will fail (which is why we’re asking people to write to Medway Council at the moment).

If the application is passed by the council, it will go onto the DTI. We’ve already written to the DTI demanding that the application be thrown out because it goes against the government's own targets on both climate change and energy sources, and at the very least we expect to see this application to be taken to public inquiry.

If it comes to it, we will be stepping up the pressure on the DTI in the months to come – we’ll keep you updated here. And, of course, we wouldn’t rule out taking non-violent direct action at some point in future, if we believe it's the only way to stop the new coal rush...

great but what can we do to physically stop it?
has anyone got any good ideas for legally stopping the developement ?
or is this a time for definate action?

Just want to point out that a FOE activist has modified the Greenpeace letter and changed it to argue for CCS (carbon capture and storage) and distributed it. I think the official FOE position is that it supports a CCS trial project whereas Greenpeace argues this is the last thing we would want to do.

Greenpeace's argument for decentralised energy in the UK is sound but there does not seem to be any background paper on this web site that quantifies even in broad terms how and when the UK should meet its energy needs in the next two or three decades and still meet its national CO2 targets (whatever Greenpeace thinks these ought to be). Without that paper, Greenpeace's argument that there should be no rush to coal does not look credible.

Hi John

Thanks for this. Yep, our position is that we need action now, and carbon capture and storage is a distraction from the real solution - ie a wholesale reform of the energy system into one based on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power (ie decentralised energy).

The danger with CSS is that it becomes a justification for building cheap, inefficient, poorly constructed power stations that use the most carbon intensive methods of energy generation (like coal), which will undermine efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power - all of which are available now, and all of which can do huge amounts to reduce our emissions.

Oddly enough, my (lame) excuse for taking so long to reply to your comment is that I've been up to my eyes working on a film that lays out our energy vision. Hopefully the film will answer a lot of your questions:

www.greenpeace.org.uk/thesolution

There's also lots of background info on CHP, efficiency and renewables.

We've also produced a load of background papers on decentralised energy over the past few years - but they're tucked away in our reports section.

Here's a few:
Decentralising UK energy
Energy White Paper briefing
Submission to the 2006 Energy Review
Decentralising Scottish Energy

You might also be interested in our Kingsnorth submission

Cheers - hope this helps!

Bex
gpuk

Rob
Whilst I totally agree that conservation and renewables are the way to go, I feel that the timescale involved means we have to consider coal as a fuel. With CCS technology we can use coal as an interim measure whilst building the alternatives we need. I think there is a danger of alienating the general public from ecologically sound principles if we are perceived as extremists and I believe there is no way that any government would put into practice the necessary legislation to achieve Grenpeace's goals in the timescale required. Surely coal with CCS is peferable to nuclear.

I found the report on decentralised energy very interesting. Going through the details I was reminded of an article in the online version of the Scottish Herald last week (http://www.theherald.co.uk/search/...) about plans to connect Orkney up to the National Grid in order to build wind farms up there. The issue was the cost of connection had been quoted at £100 per kW, which was ten times more than other parts of the UK. It sounds as if the costs will be reduced.

Getting back to the decentralised energy report, annex 1 gives figure of £300 per kW for new plant to connect to the transmission network and the same figure to connect to the distribution network for all types of generation including the "decentralised" sources, with the single exception of (curiously) nuclear, which has a lower distribution figure. As this figure fails to match the numbers recently quoted in the press, can you explain the discrepancy?

The problem is, CCS isn't proven as commercially viable; even the chancellor, Alistair Darling, says the technology is "still in the foothills" and "may never work" while the UN predicts it won't have a significant impact for decades.

But I agree with your assertion that a transition measure is useful - this is partly why we see combined heat and power (CHP) as key to the energy mix. CHP plants can use a mix of fuels - from fossil fuels to sustainable biofuels. So, as more and more sustainable fuels become available, we can burn them without the need to change the technology. In the mean time, through CHP, we'd be burning the fuel - whatever it is - in the most efficient way possible.

Luckily, it's not a choice between nuclear power and coal - neither can do enough to stop climate change. The technologies we need to overhaul the energy system already exist - more here.

Bex
gpuk
PS Sorry for the delay!

Hi simrek

Sorry for the delay - I'm trying to track down the figures and will get back to you soon!

Bex
gpuk

I fear these coal plants, with the CCS 'later' addition are a great excuse for not putting work into more immediate solutions, dare I say, this parliment leaving it for the next. At the very least the government is not setting a good example to the general public.

Has anyone done a detailed study of how renewables and CHP could be used instead of this new coal seam? A study on neccesary renewables, reductions, CHP and supporting legislation would be an invaluable tool.

Is there any reason why CCS couldn't be retro fitted to a CHP plant? It would more economically viablefor a large CHP plant, but then they are planning the Thames Gateway, which is surely a perfect opportunity for CHP.

Any luck finding out what the report bases its analysis on? I've been looking further at the data used, and find I have some other queries. In the spreadsheet used to determine the electrical generating mix, new CHP is given a heat rate to fuel consumption rate of 4700 kJ/kWh. By my calculation this is the same as saying the CHP is over 76% efficient, and from my understanding of the data, this is the electrical generating efficiency (all the useful energy is used to meet the predicted electrical requirement).

I also note that microCHP has a utilisation factor of 35%. This sounds very high for what I assume is a replacement domestic boiler. Finally I cannot identify the availability factors used in the peak models. Have I missed something, or would there be power cuts on a windless winter evening?

No Rob, it's not.
A coal fired power station with CCS would have CO2 emissions 10 to 20% of that of a non CCS plant. A nuclear generator has practically no emissions.
Both coal and nuclear have waste problems. The waste from a nuclear generator is carefully sealed in long-life drums and is stored, under supervision, deep underground until a means of nuclear burning of the waste can be found(fast nutron thorium generators, at present under development). The waste from coal burning power stations (assuming flue scrubbing) consists of millions of tons of fly ash. The ash contains diluted quantities of radioactive elements (uranium,radon gas etc), mercury( about half the dangerous levels of mercury in sea fish at the top of the food chain come from this source), lead and other heavy metals. This fly ash is often stored in huge uncovered surface piles, is sometimes dumped at sea and often incorporated into building materials where it increases the background radiation for the population.
If a bit less nuclear protesting and more encouragement for research had been done during the last 30years we would now perhaps have 5th generation nuclear power available, and would not be in this almost hopeless situation where we are forced to chose between covering the country with several thouand unsightly windmills or building dirty generators.

I agree with Prof. If only idiots like you had not spent 30 odd years moaning about nuclear power, the only clean form of energy that can actually be guaranteed to provide high load factors and not cover half the country, we may well have a solution by now. You moan about nuclear waste as 'storing up problems for future generations' but CCS is essentially doing the same thing. I can't really see where your 'radical' action to stop climate change is coming from, anyway. Not when wind turbines require more CO2 emissions to make them than they ever save through use. Don't just quote peak load figures; they're as optimistic as anything. So what you want is a huge amount of power generation capacity sitting around doing nothing because we need enough of them to keep the grid running even when conditions aren't right, when a few nuclear power stations could provide the same thing for far longer and with far fewer units? That doesn't sound very green to me.

As I write this, its snowing outside. Its been icy for days now. Where's global warming now, or have we just fallen off the tip of the hockey stick?

One further question: Do your servers use solid state memory chips? Because if they don't, there's a whole lot of hard drive just spinning away doing not a lot, and many of them are unnecessary as well (solid state has faster read times, so you need fewer to meet demand). What a waste of resources. Just like wind turbines and decentralised energy generally, in fact.

Hey there,

Just straight off the bat, wind turbines don't require more CO2 emissions to make than they save. The normal carbon payback time on a wind turbine is less than a year - and that takes into account how often they're turning, and all the other complexities of power generation. (Carbon payback time is the time that needs to pass before the carbon emissions saved by a turbine are greater than the carbon used to construct, transport and install the turbine.)

The massive investment in wind we're seeing around the world, and the key role it plays in authoratative policy guidance to the government - like the Committee on Climate Change's first report - just demonstrate that wind turbines, alongside a range of other decentralised energy systems, can and will help provide energy and cut emissions from now on.

If we're talking efficiency, the centralised coal, nuclear and gas power plants we rely on today lose (on average) two thirds of their power as waste heat - up cooling towers, for example. That's not very efficient. Astoundingly, we currently waste enough heat in Britain from power generation to heat all of our homes and meet all of our hot water needs.

There is another way - A diverse and decentralised energy system could balance the power is generates with our needs, and actually meet energy requirements much more efficiently than huge centralised power plants which are dirty, slow to start up or close down, and hideously inefficient. Combined Heat and Power plants, for example, can be up to 95 per cent efficient - wasting only 5 per cent of their heat energy.

Naturally, at Greenpeace, we use computers, heaters, lights, phones etc. And I'm sure our servers do use hard disks (it might be quite expensive to have all of our servers in solid state!). But we get our electricity from a green supplier, we've insulated our office well, and we work hard to promote the smart and efficient use of energy.

Finally, you may think that, because it's snowing, climate change isn't happening... But I'm afraid I'm not persuaded by your argument!

Cheers,

Christian
gpuk

Excuse me for being stupid, but isn't CHP basically a power station with a heat exchanger to recover waste heat? Although at present it seems to be small scale, it could be relatively easily applied to a large power station; the heat could either be used to drive pumps etc or make cups of tea for the operators :-). Yes, current generation power stations are incredibly inefficient but I am not advocating these, I am advocating nuclear. There are proven reserves for at least a few hundred years, with estimates for unconventional reserves going to a few thousand. I'm not sure if these refer to the immensely wasteful US 'once through' or reprocessing; if, as is likely, they are US figures, the 'proven reserves' could be many times more. Reasearch into superconductors would almost entirely eliminate transmission losses, making centralised power a decent proposition. It stands to reason that small scale generation will be less efficient; the higher SAV ratio of, for example, a small boiler compared to a large one will mean more heat is lost to atmosphere. Wind turbines have their place, for example in microgeneration, but the sites where they can be economical are limited; its no use saying they'll only cover 1/435 of Britain if only 1/300th of Britain is economically viable. The same goes for hydro; we simply don't have the mountains. A tidal barrage, for example across the Severn, would provide a lot of power, but not all the time. In order to provide the base load, some reliable form of generation would be needed, such as nuclear, supported by power stations such as Dinorwig, or CCGT's to allow the demand to be met while the big generators spooled up. Uranium can be got from politically reliable sources such as Australia, which still likes us despite Labour, which is hardly true for the Russian gas and foreign oil we must rely on when the North Sea runs out relatively soon. It is all very well saying that we're investing in inefficient tech now, but the only way to progress is by continually investing in it from generation to generation. Consider, for example, either the car or the steam engine. The car has dramatically improved in efficiency; the Model T managed 40hp off 2.9 litres (one of the reasons it wasn't successful here; the Government, even in those days, had a policy of punitively taxing large capacity vehicles like buses). Now it is possible to get 100+hp per litre, without using turbocharging, simply because the efficiency has increased. Besides, if we use the uranium now, we will save future generations radiation doses from badly shielded uranium deposits, and if we don't - well, we will merely have wasted a resource given to us by the grace of God for our use, and its radioactive decay will have contributed to climate change.

Its still snowing, only its got thicker now.

Just want to point out that a FOE activist has modified the Greenpeace letter and changed it to argue for CCS (carbon capture and storage) and distributed it. I think the official FOE position is that it supports a CCS trial project whereas Greenpeace argues this is the last thing we would want to do. Greenpeace's argument for decentralised energy in the UK is sound but there does not seem to be any background paper on this web site that quantifies even in broad terms how and when the UK should meet its energy needs in the next two or three decades and still meet its national CO2 targets (whatever Greenpeace thinks these ought to be). Without that paper, Greenpeace's argument that there should be no rush to coal does not look credible.

Hi John Thanks for this. Yep, our position is that we need action now, and carbon capture and storage is a distraction from the real solution - ie a wholesale reform of the energy system into one based on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power (ie decentralised energy). The danger with CSS is that it becomes a justification for building cheap, inefficient, poorly constructed power stations that use the most carbon intensive methods of energy generation (like coal), which will undermine efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power - all of which are available now, and all of which can do huge amounts to reduce our emissions. Oddly enough, my (lame) excuse for taking so long to reply to your comment is that I've been up to my eyes working on a film that lays out our energy vision. Hopefully the film will answer a lot of your questions: www.greenpeace.org.uk/thesolution There's also lots of background info on CHP, efficiency and renewables. We've also produced a load of background papers on decentralised energy over the past few years - but they're tucked away in our reports section. Here's a few: Decentralising UK energy Energy White Paper briefing Submission to the 2006 Energy Review Decentralising Scottish Energy You might also be interested in our Kingsnorth submission Cheers - hope this helps! Bex gpuk

Rob Whilst I totally agree that conservation and renewables are the way to go, I feel that the timescale involved means we have to consider coal as a fuel. With CCS technology we can use coal as an interim measure whilst building the alternatives we need. I think there is a danger of alienating the general public from ecologically sound principles if we are perceived as extremists and I believe there is no way that any government would put into practice the necessary legislation to achieve Grenpeace's goals in the timescale required. Surely coal with CCS is peferable to nuclear.

I found the report on decentralised energy very interesting. Going through the details I was reminded of an article in the online version of the Scottish Herald last week (http://www.theherald.co.uk/search/...) about plans to connect Orkney up to the National Grid in order to build wind farms up there. The issue was the cost of connection had been quoted at £100 per kW, which was ten times more than other parts of the UK. It sounds as if the costs will be reduced. Getting back to the decentralised energy report, annex 1 gives figure of £300 per kW for new plant to connect to the transmission network and the same figure to connect to the distribution network for all types of generation including the "decentralised" sources, with the single exception of (curiously) nuclear, which has a lower distribution figure. As this figure fails to match the numbers recently quoted in the press, can you explain the discrepancy?

The problem is, CCS isn't proven as commercially viable; even the chancellor, Alistair Darling, says the technology is "still in the foothills" and "may never work" while the UN predicts it won't have a significant impact for decades. But I agree with your assertion that a transition measure is useful - this is partly why we see combined heat and power (CHP) as key to the energy mix. CHP plants can use a mix of fuels - from fossil fuels to sustainable biofuels. So, as more and more sustainable fuels become available, we can burn them without the need to change the technology. In the mean time, through CHP, we'd be burning the fuel - whatever it is - in the most efficient way possible. Luckily, it's not a choice between nuclear power and coal - neither can do enough to stop climate change. The technologies we need to overhaul the energy system already exist - more here. Bex gpuk PS Sorry for the delay!

Hi simrek Sorry for the delay - I'm trying to track down the figures and will get back to you soon! Bex gpuk

I fear these coal plants, with the CCS 'later' addition are a great excuse for not putting work into more immediate solutions, dare I say, this parliment leaving it for the next. At the very least the government is not setting a good example to the general public. Has anyone done a detailed study of how renewables and CHP could be used instead of this new coal seam? A study on neccesary renewables, reductions, CHP and supporting legislation would be an invaluable tool. Is there any reason why CCS couldn't be retro fitted to a CHP plant? It would more economically viablefor a large CHP plant, but then they are planning the Thames Gateway, which is surely a perfect opportunity for CHP.

Any luck finding out what the report bases its analysis on? I've been looking further at the data used, and find I have some other queries. In the spreadsheet used to determine the electrical generating mix, new CHP is given a heat rate to fuel consumption rate of 4700 kJ/kWh. By my calculation this is the same as saying the CHP is over 76% efficient, and from my understanding of the data, this is the electrical generating efficiency (all the useful energy is used to meet the predicted electrical requirement). I also note that microCHP has a utilisation factor of 35%. This sounds very high for what I assume is a replacement domestic boiler. Finally I cannot identify the availability factors used in the peak models. Have I missed something, or would there be power cuts on a windless winter evening?

No Rob, it's not. A coal fired power station with CCS would have CO2 emissions 10 to 20% of that of a non CCS plant. A nuclear generator has practically no emissions. Both coal and nuclear have waste problems. The waste from a nuclear generator is carefully sealed in long-life drums and is stored, under supervision, deep underground until a means of nuclear burning of the waste can be found(fast nutron thorium generators, at present under development). The waste from coal burning power stations (assuming flue scrubbing) consists of millions of tons of fly ash. The ash contains diluted quantities of radioactive elements (uranium,radon gas etc), mercury( about half the dangerous levels of mercury in sea fish at the top of the food chain come from this source), lead and other heavy metals. This fly ash is often stored in huge uncovered surface piles, is sometimes dumped at sea and often incorporated into building materials where it increases the background radiation for the population. If a bit less nuclear protesting and more encouragement for research had been done during the last 30years we would now perhaps have 5th generation nuclear power available, and would not be in this almost hopeless situation where we are forced to chose between covering the country with several thouand unsightly windmills or building dirty generators.

I agree with Prof. If only idiots like you had not spent 30 odd years moaning about nuclear power, the only clean form of energy that can actually be guaranteed to provide high load factors and not cover half the country, we may well have a solution by now. You moan about nuclear waste as 'storing up problems for future generations' but CCS is essentially doing the same thing. I can't really see where your 'radical' action to stop climate change is coming from, anyway. Not when wind turbines require more CO2 emissions to make them than they ever save through use. Don't just quote peak load figures; they're as optimistic as anything. So what you want is a huge amount of power generation capacity sitting around doing nothing because we need enough of them to keep the grid running even when conditions aren't right, when a few nuclear power stations could provide the same thing for far longer and with far fewer units? That doesn't sound very green to me. As I write this, its snowing outside. Its been icy for days now. Where's global warming now, or have we just fallen off the tip of the hockey stick? One further question: Do your servers use solid state memory chips? Because if they don't, there's a whole lot of hard drive just spinning away doing not a lot, and many of them are unnecessary as well (solid state has faster read times, so you need fewer to meet demand). What a waste of resources. Just like wind turbines and decentralised energy generally, in fact.

Hey there, Just straight off the bat, wind turbines don't require more CO2 emissions to make than they save. The normal carbon payback time on a wind turbine is less than a year - and that takes into account how often they're turning, and all the other complexities of power generation. (Carbon payback time is the time that needs to pass before the carbon emissions saved by a turbine are greater than the carbon used to construct, transport and install the turbine.) The massive investment in wind we're seeing around the world, and the key role it plays in authoratative policy guidance to the government - like the Committee on Climate Change's first report - just demonstrate that wind turbines, alongside a range of other decentralised energy systems, can and will help provide energy and cut emissions from now on. If we're talking efficiency, the centralised coal, nuclear and gas power plants we rely on today lose (on average) two thirds of their power as waste heat - up cooling towers, for example. That's not very efficient. Astoundingly, we currently waste enough heat in Britain from power generation to heat all of our homes and meet all of our hot water needs. There is another way - A diverse and decentralised energy system could balance the power is generates with our needs, and actually meet energy requirements much more efficiently than huge centralised power plants which are dirty, slow to start up or close down, and hideously inefficient. Combined Heat and Power plants, for example, can be up to 95 per cent efficient - wasting only 5 per cent of their heat energy. Naturally, at Greenpeace, we use computers, heaters, lights, phones etc. And I'm sure our servers do use hard disks (it might be quite expensive to have all of our servers in solid state!). But we get our electricity from a green supplier, we've insulated our office well, and we work hard to promote the smart and efficient use of energy. Finally, you may think that, because it's snowing, climate change isn't happening... But I'm afraid I'm not persuaded by your argument! Cheers, Christian gpuk

Excuse me for being stupid, but isn't CHP basically a power station with a heat exchanger to recover waste heat? Although at present it seems to be small scale, it could be relatively easily applied to a large power station; the heat could either be used to drive pumps etc or make cups of tea for the operators :-). Yes, current generation power stations are incredibly inefficient but I am not advocating these, I am advocating nuclear. There are proven reserves for at least a few hundred years, with estimates for unconventional reserves going to a few thousand. I'm not sure if these refer to the immensely wasteful US 'once through' or reprocessing; if, as is likely, they are US figures, the 'proven reserves' could be many times more. Reasearch into superconductors would almost entirely eliminate transmission losses, making centralised power a decent proposition. It stands to reason that small scale generation will be less efficient; the higher SAV ratio of, for example, a small boiler compared to a large one will mean more heat is lost to atmosphere. Wind turbines have their place, for example in microgeneration, but the sites where they can be economical are limited; its no use saying they'll only cover 1/435 of Britain if only 1/300th of Britain is economically viable. The same goes for hydro; we simply don't have the mountains. A tidal barrage, for example across the Severn, would provide a lot of power, but not all the time. In order to provide the base load, some reliable form of generation would be needed, such as nuclear, supported by power stations such as Dinorwig, or CCGT's to allow the demand to be met while the big generators spooled up. Uranium can be got from politically reliable sources such as Australia, which still likes us despite Labour, which is hardly true for the Russian gas and foreign oil we must rely on when the North Sea runs out relatively soon. It is all very well saying that we're investing in inefficient tech now, but the only way to progress is by continually investing in it from generation to generation. Consider, for example, either the car or the steam engine. The car has dramatically improved in efficiency; the Model T managed 40hp off 2.9 litres (one of the reasons it wasn't successful here; the Government, even in those days, had a policy of punitively taxing large capacity vehicles like buses). Now it is possible to get 100+hp per litre, without using turbocharging, simply because the efficiency has increased. Besides, if we use the uranium now, we will save future generations radiation doses from badly shielded uranium deposits, and if we don't - well, we will merely have wasted a resource given to us by the grace of God for our use, and its radioactive decay will have contributed to climate change. Its still snowing, only its got thicker now.

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