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• Huge jump in coal use in power stations prompts rise
• Scotland renewables production hits record levels
The UK’s emissions of climate-warming gases surged in 2012 as cheap coal replaced gas in power stations, official data revealed on Thursday.
However, 2012 was a record year for renewable energy in Scotland, which produced enough electricity to power all of its homes. Fergus Ewing, the Scottish energy minister, said his government was now on track to meet its target of generating the equivalent of 50% of Scotland’s own electricity needs by 2015 and 100% by 2020.
The UK’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 4.5% from 2011-12, with coal use in power stations jumping by 31%. Coal prices have dropped significantly as the US has exported the coal it no longer needs at home due to the shale gas boom. Another factor is that many of the UK’s coal-fired power stations must close soon, due to European pollution regulations, meaning they have been using up their allotted hours. The gas used in power stations dropped by 31%.
But there was a jump in the gas used to heat homes due to a cold last quarter of 2012, which the department for energy and climate change said had been 2.3C colder than Q4 2011. The cold weather in the UK in recent weeks led to gas reserve levels falling to just two days worth, with the price spiking as a result.
Emissions rose in the business sector, despite the UK’s flatlining economy. But pollution from transport – a quarter of all emissions – fell by 1.2%. Overall, the UK’s emissions remain about 20% lower than in 1990, largely due to gas replacing coal and some industry moving manufacturing abroad. The statistics also showed that UK imports of energy were higher in 2012 than for several decades.
“Emissions are now 26% lower than 1990, meaning we’re on track to meet our legally binding targets,” said energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey. “But the line on the graph is unlikely to be totally straight, as factors such as the weather and fluctuations in the precise energy mix vary the picture from one year to the next. The UK’s continued shift to low carbon will be accelerated by the green deal to help householders overhaul their properties, and by our energy bill’s reforms to the electricity market to bring on investment in renewables, new nuclear and CCS.”
Nick Molho, head of energy policy at WWF-UK, said: “The government’s role on energy is threefold: ensuring energy security, keeping bills down and decarbonising our energy system. These statistics are worrying, because they show that the UK is going the wrong way in all these areas. Increased reliance on fossil fuel imports is the main problem we face and the sad thing is that it’s government policies, notably driven by the Treasury, that are causing this.”
Kathy Cumming at Greenpeace said: “These figures show the ‘greenest government ever’ is failing in its bid to shift the UK to a low-carbon economy. The two best things it could do in order to redeem itself are support Tim Yeo’s energy bill amendment, which would remove carbon from the electricity sector by 2030, and put an end to coal burning.”
The statistics came out on the day that energy minister John Hayes – an outspoken opponent of onshore wind farms – was moved out of the department. His replacement, Michael Fallon, will also retain his post at the department of business, which some stakeholders hope will mean the coalition doing more to boost investor confidence in the energy sector, which needs £110bn by 2020.
In Scotland, renewable energy output has continued to grow markedly, hitting a new record of 14,600Gwh in 2012, up by 7% on the previous year. Windfarm output was four times greater than in 2006.
Scottish wind and hydro schemes generated 35% of the UK’s total renewables output in 2012, and that – averaged out across the year – provided enough green electricity for every home in Scotland.
“It was another record year for renewables in Scotland,” Ewing said. “Scotland also contributed more than a third of the entire UK’s renewables output, demonstrating just how important a role our renewable resource is playing in terms of helping the UK meet its binding EU renewable energy targets.”
The industry body Scottish Renewables said £1.5bn had been invested in renewables in Scotland last year – more than double the spending in 2011 – but there are doubts within the industry and among investors about whether the 100% target can be achieved. Hitting that target will rely heavily on expensive and technically challenging large offshore windpower schemes; there is much less capacity for larger onshore schemes.
The Scottish government is under intensifying pressure from environment and climate campaigners to improve its CO2 emissions reduction and climate strategies, after admitting it had failed to meet its 2010 reduction target.
The UK’s official committee on climate change said the very cold winter in 2010 was largely to blame for the missed target, but Stop Climate Chaos Scotland said the government would miss its targets for several years to come because its climate strategies were too weak.
The Scottish government’s targets are highly dependent on the EU increasing its CO2 reduction targets from 20% to 30%, but that is not expected before 2016. While anxious to champion energy investment, Scottish ministers are very reluctant to target motorists or cut road building, and are accused of under-investing in home insulation and low-carbon motoring.
The air-quality problem (The last gasp, G2, 20 March) is not just a problem in big cities. Crediton, population about 8,000, was declared an air-quality management area in 2003. The A377, which connects Exeter and Barnstaple, now carries more than 14,000 vehicles a day and passes through the centre. Our air quality does not meet the EU standard for either particulates, or nitrogen dioxide. Devon county council, which had agreed in 1991 on a route for a northern bypass, cancelled the planning permission for this. It has just started work on a relief road, which may help improve air quality at the eastern end of the town, but cannot help to reduce traffic through the high street, used by shoppers and children. We cannot now discover how bad the air quality is because the district council, which installed an air-quality monitor 10 years ago, putting the data straight on to the web, withdrew this facility three years ago.
Crediton Traffic Action Group, Devon
• John Vidal revives the misleading idea that coal-fired power stations were the cause of the high pollution levels that led to some 4,000 excess deaths in the London smog of 1952. The consequent Clean Air Act of 1956 pointed the finger firmly at domestic chimneys, the major contributors to concentrations of smoke and sulphur dioxide at ground level. This prompted a move to cleaner domestic fuels. The electricity industry policy of employing particulate filtration, plus tall stacks so that gaseous pollutants were well diluted before they reached the ground, was vindicated. This approach only came into question when acid rain and ozone emerged as issues in the 1970s.
Former CEGB environmental engineer
• John Vidal is wrong to trivialise the enormous amount of work on improving air quality in London. Since the mayor took office, emissions of dangerous particulates have fallen by 15% and of oxides of nitrogen by 20%. An ambitious package of measures includes building Europe’s largest fleet of low-emission hybrid buses, retiring the oldest taxis and introducing tighter emission standards for lorries and vans. The ultra-low emission zone in the centre of London is not “PR”; it could provide a major spur for the further development and mass take-up of zero- and low-emission vehicles. Add in a £20m fund to help London’s boroughs target new spending on local air pollution hot spots and it’s clear that air quality in the capital is taken extremely seriously.
Mayor of London’s environment adviser
• John Vidal’s report is timely and worrying. The invisible nature of the current pollution, compared with the smogs of the 1950s, is the main reason it is ignored. London is the UK city that is worst affected, so it is vital that the mayor, together with all London local authorities – and Defra – work to improve air quality. We in the Square Mile are working directly with businesses to develop effective actions that can be taken by firms to improve air quality in the world’s leading business district. But there are no quick fixes and it may well require action from central government.
City of London Corporation’s port health and environmental services committee
Energy secretary Ed Davey grants EDF permission to build and run two reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset
Plans for the first new nuclear power station for nearly a generation in the UK have got the go-ahead from the energy secretary, who has said he is granting planning consent.
Ed Davey told the House of Commons the French energy firm EDF would be allowed to build two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, on the site of an existing power station, which is due to close in 2023.
“It’s vital to get investment in new infrastructure to get the economy moving,” Davey said. “[Hinkley] will generate vast amounts of clean energy and enhance our energy security. It will benefit the local economy, through direct employment, the supply chain and the use of local services.”
The two 1.6-gigawatt reactors will become one of the biggest power plants in the UK, providing enough electricity for up to 5m average homes. The nuclear plant is expected to be the first in a series of new ones the coalition has proposed as part of its plans to replace ageing coal and nuclear facilities that are due to be closed over the next few years.
However, the symbolic decision on planning permission still leaves Davey’s department for energy and climate change and EDF locked in negotiations over how much subsidy the company will get during the life of the plant. It is thought officials are discussing a contract that would guarantee the French company being paid nearly £100 for each megawatt hour of electricity produced over 30 to 40 years.
Under the system, called “contracts for difference“, if the market price, which is about half that level, is lower than the agreed minimum “strike price”, electricity suppliers will have to pay the difference by making a surcharge on customer bills; if the market price rises higher, then the company would forfeit the difference.
EDF and government officials also have to agree how much the company will pay for long-term storage of nuclear waste. “Discussions on both those are on going and intense, but I expect them to be concluded shortly,” Davey said.
Critics say the subsidies will cost bill-payers at least £1bn a year, pointing out that a strike price of nearly £100 would be higher than all but the highest of the government’s forecasts for future electricity prices up to 2030, and in opposition to a host of government policies designed to reduce that price.
However, ministers believe the contracts for difference, available for all low-carbon power, will help develop a variety of energy sources including renewable energy as offshore wind, nuclear, new gas plants and, in future, carbon capture and storage equipment fitted to gas and coal plants. These sources would make the UK more resilient to fluctuating power prices, and reduce the carbon emissions on which climate change is blamed.
Davey declined more than once to comment on the negotiations, but added: “When the deal is concluded we will be completely transparent on that deal, whether it’s on the strike price, the length [of the contract] or other details.”
There are additional concerns that when a deal is agreed with EDF, the European commission could launch an inquiry into the subsidies, which would qualify as state aid. That would delay the project by at least 18 months. EDF would then have to begin finding funding of up to £14bn to pay for construction of the turbines.
Approval has been granted for the design of the EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) reactor, and the Environment Agency last week agreed to the environmental permits needed.
Building the reactors is expected to create 20,000-25,000 construction jobs, and 900 permanent jobs when the plant opens.
Katja Hall, the CBI chief policy director, said: “This is a big step forward on a critical energy infrastructure scheme. Major projects like this not only help us to overcome our energy challenges, but provide a real boost to growth, creating thousands of jobs directly and through the supply chain. A balanced energy mix is essential in order to ensure secure, low-carbon and affordable supply in the future, and new nuclear is a key part of this.”
Keith Allott, chief adviser on climate change at WWF-UK, a wildlife protection group, said: “Backing nuclear means shifting a huge liability to British taxpayers for the cost of building, electricity and, crucially, dealing with the waste.
“Unlike renewable energy, the costs of nuclear keep on rising, as witnessed by the fact that the only reactors currently being built in Europe are massively over-budget and far behind schedule. Focusing on renewables and energy efficiency, on the other hand, where the UK has huge potential to be an industrial leader, could deliver both huge cost reductions and a substantial boost to UK economic growth and manufacturing.”
The most recently built nuclear plant in Britain is Sizewell B, which was constructed in 1995.