The case against coal - frequently asked questions

Last edited 13 September 2010 at 5:42pm

According to leading US climate scientist, the NASA director Professor James Hansen:

"The single greatest threat to the climate comes from burning coal. Coal-fired generation is historically responsible for most of the fossil-fuel CO2 in the air today - responsible for about half of all carbon dioxide emissions globally."

Below you can find out more about why we urgently need to the halt the new coal rush, and Greenpeace's  case for real solutions to climate change and energy insecurity.

Does carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology mean that cleaner coal exists and is a viable low-carbon fuel?

The industry says CCS is viable. Why should I take your word over theirs?

Why are the politicians so convinced CCS will work?

If China and India are inevitably going to burn coal for decades to come then don't we need to become a world leader in 'clean coal' technology and export it to them?

Isn't the truth that only way we can keep the light on by building new coal-fired power stations - and that groups like Greenpeace have no real solution to our energy problems?

Where's the evidence that Greenpeace's solutions will work?

Aren’t renewables notoriously unreliable? What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?

Wouldn’t meeting our energy security needs by renewables, decentralised energy and efficiency mean much higher fuel bills for the British public?

Can decentralised energy really work here?

If we don't replace our coal plants, won't thousands of workers be left jobless?

Why can't we have coal and renewables?

If we don’t go for coal won't we be dependent for gas on unstable regimes and countries like Russia?

Does carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology mean that cleaner coal exists and is a viable low-carbon fuel?

A:
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology promises to remove dangerous greenhouse gas emissions from the coal power generation process before it gets into the atmosphere. As such it has been presented as a sort of fossil-fuel Holy Grail. The trouble with CCS is that no-one knows when - if ever - it will be commercially available. At the moment there are only a few small scale demonstration plants.

The whole CCS enterprise is loaded with uncertainties. It doesn't mean it won't happen. But it does mean we have to take a long sober look at what role we assume CCS can play in cutting CO2 in the crucial period up to 2020, when CO2 emissions need to peak.

The theoretical possibility of CCS has been used by government and industry as a smokescreen to bulldoze through new, conventional coal-fired power stations in the UK.


Q: The industry says CCS is viable. Why should I take your word over theirs?

A:
Actually, it depends who you listen to. Centrica (quoted in the WWF 'UK Power Giants' Report', 09/07) says that conventional coal isn't attractive as a generating technology unless CCS is proven:

"We believe that any investment in coal without carbon capture will be increasingly risky. We therefore have no current plans to invest in coal generation without carbon capture."

Centrica again:

"Supercritical technology, while cleaner than technology at existing coal plants, does not represent the cleanest form of clean coal generation without a carbon capture and storage solution, and would still be nearly four times more emitting than IGCC technology with carbon capture. It should also be noted that several clean coal projects proposed in the UK have to date only committed to their plants being "capture ready", rather than developing an integrated carbon capture and storage solution at the same time as the new generation plant. Almost any generation plant can be altered to capture carbon... We believe that government support for clean coal technology should be limited to those plants actually implementing carbon capture and storage, rather than capture-ready."

Privately, E.ON are sceptical too. In an email they sent to officials at the Department of Business on January 16th 2008, the company says that CCS technology at Kingsnorth "obviously... has no current reference for viability at any scale" (Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: available to view at www.greenpeace.org.uk/coalsecrets). Other industry voices that have often been supportive of CCS remain reserved about its viability. The CEO of RWE npower, Andy Duff, for example, said in June 2007 that "At this time there are still many financial, legal, regulatory, and technical hurdles to clear on CO2 transportation and storage technology."


Q: Why are the politicians so convinced CCS will work?

A:
Again – it depends who you listen to. For example, the former Business Minister, John Hutton, launching the Energy White Paper on 10th January 2008, told Parliament:

"By 2050 it is possible that most new coal-fired power stations will be able to deploy CCS technology…However, CCS is as yet unproven technology and we have to acknowledge there is some risk that safe and reliable CCS for power generation might not be proven or deployable at scale and at reasonable costs. This could happen if the projected costs turn out to be too high or if it proves to be difficult to develop safe ways to transport and store CO2."

The former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, was equally sceptical. When he was in the Department of Energy he told Parliament :

"Yes, carbon capture and storage, if it can be developed, would help. But at this stage we cannot be certain of that. There is no commercial scale operation of CCS on power generation anywhere in the world."

The financial sector has also expressed reservations about investing in coal. In America, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America said lending for coal-fired power plants will be contingent on utilities demonstrating they would be economically viable under future federal rules on emissions.

According to Standard & Poor's credit analyst David Lundberg: "There is consensus that CCS will be an integral part of the solution to climate change. However, given its high costs, it will not be economically justified in the near term, when CO2 reduction requirements are likely to be small, and other approaches to CO2 reduction will be less expensive." (Global Power Report, June 7th 2007)

All of which is to say that maybe CCS will work and maybe it won't, but either way it won't be ready in time to deliver the immediate cuts in CO2 that climate scientists say we urgently need. Energy efficiency, decentralised energy and clean, renewable energy  must be prioritized and rolled out as quickly as possible.


Q: If China and India are inevitably going to burn coal for decades to come then don't we need to become a world leader in 'clean coal’' technology and export it to them?

A:Placing all our hope in making one unproven technology work just isn't a rational position - especially when there are real, tried-and-tested solutions like renewables, decentralised energy and energy efficiency. That's the modern, clean technology we should be exporting to the developing world.

Even if CCS works at some point in the future, China and India are developing so fast that the CO2 emitted in the meantime could be enough to contribute to pushing the world past the key tipping points. Industrialising nations should be supported in shifting to a low carbon energy system from now – and that means efficiency, decentralisation and large-scale renewables.


Q: Isn't the truth that only way we can keep the light on by building new coal-fired power stations - and that groups like Greenpeace have no real solution to our energy problems?

A: We do have a solution - it's simple, it's cheaper and it’s working in other countries. And it's not just building wind turbines. We can keep the lights on by investing in energy efficiency, renewable energy and decentralised energy as well as using fossil fuels more efficiently than we do now.

As we close coal-fired and nuclear power stations in the next decade we will lose capacity currently providing around 35% of our electricity output. But Gordon Brown recently committed to targets which will require us to generate about 40% of our electricity from renewables alone by 2020. If the UK hits our renewables and efficiency targets there is no energy gap.

The coalition should put policies in place to deliver on the 33 gigawatts of offshore wind and to kick-start other renewable and decentralised technologies where Britain can lead the world. They should look to deliver super-efficient power stations on the Scandinavian model – ones which are more than 90% efficient and can use both fossil fuels and cleaner fuels like biomass – and push for products and appliances that are designed to use energy more efficiently. If we do that we won’t need new coal-fired power stations.


Q: Where's the evidence that Greenpeace's solutions will work?

A:
There are now dozens of studies, including many by government, engineering consultants, eminent academics and energy industry bodies all showing how this scale of electricity generation could be met through energy efficiency, cleaner use of fossil fuels, renewables and state-of-the-art decentralised power stations like those in Scandinavia.

A sizable portion of the 'gap' could be closed through energy efficiency alone - delivering a substantial economic savings at the same time. Government figures show that there is the potential to save over 30% of all energy (not just electricity) used in the UK solely through efficiency measures that would also save more money than they cost to implement. Government puts the total saving for consumers for this level of efficiency improvement at £12 billion.

There are several government and industry figures published for the potential contribution from marine power – electricity harnessed from waves and tides. A conservative view based on these, including one of the government's own studies into what could be achieved economically by 2020, suggests that 12% of UK electricity – or 1/3 of the so called 'energy gap' – could be met by marine power.

According to the government, there is the potential in the UK by 2015 to generate 25% of our electricity using Combined Heat and Power. (Cogeneration Directive Assessment, DEFRA, November 2007) CHP is a super-efficient way of generating electricity and using the subsequent heat that is otherwise wasted. Combined Heat and Power stations can mix efficient use of gas and coal with other types of cleaner fuels such as woodchip, straw or biogas, further reducing any reliance on gas.

Former Energy Minister John Hutton looked towards achieving 33 gigawatts of offshore wind. (Statement from Hutton, December 11th, 2007) The wind industry is confident that this is absolutely do-able. Their magazine, Wind Power Monthly wrote in February 2008:

“Today about 56GW of wind supplies 3-4% of Europe’s electricity. This will need to move to the 165 GW over the next 12 years, or 13.75GW a year. The challenge is not that great; the industry is already putting up more than 10GW in Europe every 12 months.”

In 2007, the US installed 12 times more wind capacity than the UK. Spain 8 times, China 8 times, India 4 times, Germany 4 times and France – double. (Global Wind Energy Council, February 2008)

Q: Aren’t renewables notoriously unreliable? What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?

A: The operator of the current electricity national grid said, “…based on recent analysis of the incidence and variation of wind speed, the expected intermittency of wind does not appear to pose major problems for stability…” (National Grid Transco, Seven Year Statement, May 2005)

Back up for the electrical grid already exists, because even major power stations have to come off line very rapidly in response to incidents - like safety scares at nuclear power stations such as those experienced in 2007. There is a considerable variability in the demands on the power system which grid operators are well used to managing.

The wind is blowing somewhere in Britain almost constantly. Research using meteorological records by the Oxford University Environmental Change unit showed that over a 5 year period there was no wind in Britain for only 1 hour in every 5 years. Even then other renewables like solar, wave, tidal, biomass and biogas would still be generating power, with back up from the efficient use of fossil fuels.

Q: Wouldn’t meeting our energy security needs by renewables, Decentralised Energy and efficiency mean much higher fuel bills for the British public?

A: Experience shows otherwise. Germany has developed a thriving renewables industry at a tiny cost to the consumer. For around £1 per month on the average household’s bill, Germany now generates 14% of its electricity from renewable sources. Last year German renewables generated more electricity that the entire UK nuclear fleet. Germany also employs a quarter of a million people in the renewable energy industry – bringing huge benefits to its domestic economy.

In reality – it’s the rocketing price of oil and gas, not the cost of renewables that explains why fuel bills are on the increase. By developing a sizeable and robust renewable energy industry we are insulating ourselves against further spikes in the cost of fossil fuels, which will become more frequent with increasing demand from the Asian economies.

As time goes on, the "polluter pays" principle will lead to fossil fuels becoming a much more expensive form of energy generation. The cost of carbon, while relatively low today, will rise within the next few years to make dirty fuels less and less economic, while renewables become much more profitable. In contrast, as mass production gets underway the cost of renewable technology will come down as it has in Germany.

Efficiency measures, which also make the target easier to achieve, will also bring bills down. A recent government report estimates that the UK could save £12bn per year through simple and affordable efficiency measures. This equates to a saving of around £600 per UK household.

Q: Can decentralised energy really work here?

A: A sizable portion of the 'gap' could be closed through energy efficiency alone - delivering a substantial economic savings at the same time. Government figures show that there is the potential to save over 30% of all energy (not just electricity) used in the UK solely through efficiency measures that would also save more money than they cost to implement. Government puts the total saving for consumers for this level of efficiency improvement at £12 billion.


Q: If we don't replace our coal plants, won't thousands of workers be left jobless?

A:
The truth is that the renewables sector offers a huge opportunity for job creation whereas jobs in the fossil fuel industry simply aren’t going to be sustainable in a climate-changing world.

Germany has already created a quarter of a million green-collar jobs and that's just in the past six years alone. Denmark's wind industry alone employs 20,000 and Spain's 35,000. Equally, the US employs literally millions in energy efficiency and renewables (Environmental and Energy Studies Institute, Washington DC). As so often, Britain lags behind.

The potential for employment in renewables far out does the relatively small numbers employed in UK coal burning and experience in the US shows that renewable energy creates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, unit of energy produced, and dollar invested than fossil energy.


Q: Why can't we have coal and renewables?

A: At the moment, because of the conditions the government has established, the market is stacked in favour of coal. Increasingly the government is trying to fix the conditions to make nuclear more attractive too – although at this stage its future remains risky and uncertain. We need the coalition to adopt a framework which will deliver on their promise of successful clean energy industries.

In other words, nuclear and coal power stand like two bouncers at the door blocking the way for renewables and efficiency and perpetuating our outdated, inefficient and centralised energy system.

Given that no credible person supports continued unabated coal generation (ie coal plants without CCS technology) in the face of climate science, then the need for low-carbon energy generation seems inarguable – and the barriers almost entirely political.

The Committee on Climate Change – the government’s main advisers on how to meet the UK’s carbon targets – have said that all coal stations in the UK should be fully fitted with CCS or shut down by the early 2020s.


Q: If we don't go for coal won't we become dependent for gas on unstable regimes and countries like Russia

A: The real threat to our energy security is interruptions to our oil supply. As the Government’s most recent energy white paper showed, global gas supplies are becoming more varied and more stable. The UK simply isn’t dependent on a handful of rogue states to keep our stoves running. For instance, we currently import very little of our gas from Russia. We do, however, need to build up strategic gas reserves, as they do in other European countries, to protect against future fluctuations in supply.

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