Analysis

Viewpoint: Preventing high emissions from old coal busting the UK’s carbon budgets

Joss Garman
Joss Garman is Greenpeace's Political Director
Cooling towers at Ferrybridge coal power station
License: by-nc. Credit: Steve Morgan

Documents recently released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) reveal that the government’s “central scenario” for UK power generation over coming decades could see legally-binding carbon targets breached because of significant carbon emissions resulting from an unexpectedly large role for old coal-fired power stations right through to 2030.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) who advise the government on what is required to hit carbon targets have warned for the past three years that in order to stay within the UK’s legally-binding carbon budgets all coal-fired power stations in the UK must either be fully abated with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, or shut down, by “the early 2020s.”

Lord Turner, previously the head of the CCC, said:

“We were clear in our report that there can be no role for conventional coal generation in the UK beyond the early 2020s.”

But in the “central scenario” for DECC’s 2012 energy projections, the government foresee there will still be 10.3 GW of coal-burning power plant on the system in 2024, and 7.1GW in 2029. Though generation itself is expected to tail off towards the end of the decade as the Treasury’s carbon floor price kicks in.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) plans abandoned

For a long time, Ministers have claimed the answer to the problem of high emissions levels from both coal-fired power stations and gas plants would be Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology.

The coalition agreement commits the government to four CCS coal demonstration projects. But in recent weeks it has been reliably rumoured that Ministers have cut this to one or two projects, which may be on either gas or coal plant. It also emerged the UK lost EU funding for proposed CCS projects. So whilst the government has always indicated it expected a bigger role for CCS through the 2020s and into the following decades, these plans now look extremely shaky.

When Ed Davey launched the government’s “CCS roadmap,” he said it “sets out how we will achieve our goal of seeing commercial deployment of CCS in the UK in the 2020s.” But now we know that in the government’s “central scenario” they are projecting that between 2017 and 2030 there will only be one small-scale CCS coal demonstration project in operation in the UK. Equally, the same scenario document projects there will only be 1.1GW of gas CCS by 2026 rising to 2.7GW of gas CCS by 2030.

This vision contrasts strongly with the CCC’s latest “illustrative scenario” (p5) in which they project 15% of the fossil fuel mix of the UK power sector would be CCS by 2030. This equates roughly to 69TWh, which at base load would be around 9GW. So the CCC figure sees three times more CCS than in the government scenario.

All this is particularly significant just now because a key defence mounted by the Energy Secretary Ed Davey in defending the consistency of burning fossil fuels with the carbon targets has been that CCS could keep emissions down.

A solution

DECC’s projections suggest that despite the remaining capacity the rising carbon floor price may provide a limit to coal generation, at least beyond the mid 2020’s. But that limited backstop depends on the Treasury sticking with its plans to relentlessly drive up the price of carbon irrespective of what happens in the wider carbon market. Anyone who has paid attention to the debate over fuel duty, and recent statements from the Chancellor, will know that is not a given.

To prevent excessive emissions from coal-fired power stations like Drax in the 2020s and beyond, the government’s new Energy Bill should state clearly that significant life extensions through re-fits or upgrades to old coal-fired power stations will be covered by their new Emissions Performance Standard (EPS).

Right now, the government are proposing that these new emissions controls would only apply to newly built coal burning projects, but the EPS should clearly be expected to cover all those coal plant seeking to continue operation in coming decades and not just new ones.

Viewpoint pieces reflect the view of the author and/or his or her organisation. 

The Energydesk team is away over Christmas so whilst the magic of technology allows these stories to be published in our absence we won't be able to respond to comments until 7 January - however we will then do our utmost to get up to speed. Many apologies in advance, Merry Christmas & Happy New Year. 

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