The Case Against Coal
No New Coal – and here’s why:
Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms.
There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take strong action now. The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent global response.
The single greatest threat to the climate comes from burning coal. Indeed coal fired generation is historically responsible for most of the fossil fuel CO2 in the air today and about half of all fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions globally. Coal fired power generation is the most environmentally damaging form of power generation yet devised, in fact in carbon terms coal is the single dirtiest fuel known to man.
Instead of coal we should be investing in energy efficiency, renewable energy and decentralised energy. If we do that we can tackle both climate change and energy security at the same time. Coal-fired power generation is really an outdated technology for a 21st century, climate-changing world. Even today, Britain’s centralised, inefficient coal-fired power stations waste over two-thirds of the energy they generate. Compare that with the state-of-the-art decentralised combined heat and power plants they use in Scandinavia which run at up to 94% efficiency. It is absolutely possible for us to meet our energy requirements without new coal development.
Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency:
The UK is committed to EU renewable energy targets which will require us to generate about 40% of our electricity from renewable sources alone by 2020. To do this we need nothing short of an energy revolution. The UK has the largest potential for renewable energy generation of all the EU countries, mostly through wind, wave and tidal power. So a renewable energy revolution is genuinely possible, provided it is kick started by serious political commitment.
UK also has fairly ambitious energy efficiency targets – if the UK was to hit these existing renewables and efficiency targets, there will be no ‘energy gap.’ We can keep the lights on and cut emissions, and in the long run bring down fuel bills too – all without new coal.
Coal-fired power generation really is an outdated technology for a 21st century, climate-changing world. Even today, Britain’s centralised, inefficient coal-fired power stations waste over two-thirds of the energy they generate.
Germany has installed nearly 10 times more wind power capacity and uses 20 times as much biomass as the UK. Between 2000 and 2007 Spain increased its wind power capacity by over 6 times. In the same time period the UK’s capacity didn’t even double.
The UK’s current energy system is centralised and staggeringly inefficient. A handful of power stations supply homes and businesses across the nation via long distance power transmission lines. At every stage of this process there is a huge amount of wastage. Two thirds of the energy generated is not utilised. This big chunk of energy goes straight up cooling towers into the atmosphere as wasted heat. Compare that with the state-of-the-art power plants they use in Scandinavia which run at up to 94% efficiency!
Super efficient combined heat and power stations are located close to their point of use and use heat that would otherwise have been wasted to supply the needs of industry or communities. DE systems would save huge amounts of energy currently wasted via transmission lines and cooling towers and prevent tonnes of CO2 emissions.
The truth is that the renewables sector offers a huge opportunity for job creation whereas jobs in the fossil fuel industry simply aren’t sustainable in a climate-changing world.
Serious investment in the renewables sector would inject the economy with what the industry is calling a new wave of ‘green collar jobs’
The government’s renewable energy strategy consultation identifies the potential for upwards of 160,000 new jobs if it meets the UK’s 2020 renewable energy targets.
Both Germany and Spain have built up vibrant renewable manufacturing sectors, with the German government announcing that 235,000 people were employed in the renewable energy sector in 2006.
Denmark’s wind industry alone employs 20,000 and Spain’s 35,000. Equally, the US employs literally millions in energy efficiency and renewables. As so often, Britain lags behind.
What about Carbon Capture and Storage?
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 and deployable on any large scale. 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.
Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, has told parliament: CCS as a technology is “Still in the foothills” and “may never work”. The majority of experts do not expect CCS to be commercially viable until 2020 at the earliest – far too late to prevent a decades worth of coal emissions.
The theoretical possibility of CCS is being used by government and industry as a smokescreen to bulldoze through new, conventional coal-fired power stations in the UK.
Sir David King – the government’s former chief scientist – said:
“There’s little doubt that if we burn all of the coal that sits below the earth’s surface, we can return the planet to the condition it was in 50 million years ago when the Antarctic was a tropical forest and much of the rest of the planet would be pretty difficult for human beings to live on…We’ve got to see that coal is not a useful resource to burn unless we can recapture the carbon that is produced by burning it.”
He added of CCS;
“This is still unproven technology and I think until it’s proven, it’s dangerous to assume that we can continue to use coal.”