The UK has a big decision to make on coal power plants

Written by Staff Writer Watch our new series Climate at an Indispensable Mountaintop in which CNN takes a step back from the news cycle to investigate some of the biggest challenges facing humanity: what…

The UK has a big decision to make on coal power plants

Written by Staff Writer

Watch our new series Climate at an Indispensable Mountaintop in which CNN takes a step back from the news cycle to investigate some of the biggest challenges facing humanity: what we can learn from the earth’s past, what our greatest challenges are today, and whether humanity has a future. Climate at an Indispensable Mountaintop with David Roodman will air on CNN International at 9pm Eastern Time. The premiere episode explores the changing economics of clean energy, where new finance methods for green investments provide the potential for a resurgence.

A new call to action has been issued by the British government, seeking “inclusive global leadership to achieve new temperature goals.” And in November 2016, new rules were passed that could allow the government to sell government-owned shares in the UK’s utilities to help reduce the country’s carbon emissions. But there’s one thing the government is not looking to sell.

The UK must keep its coal power plants running for as long as it can.

Ministers argue the industry “cannot and should not be shut down.” In fact, the current new rule on coal power plants says they are “actively retained” when many European countries have decided to abolish the source of power.

The UK is “one of the fastest growing coal generating sectors in Europe,” so what will happen when coal is officially phased out? In the long term, the UK is likely to import coal from abroad, such as from India and Indonesia. Yet, the US and Australia both have plans to ban coal mining within a decade. These changes are likely to drive price-driven power plant costs down in the long term. However, any such fall in costs will come too late for existing and future coal plants.

Though coal generated 54% of the UK’s electricity in 1975, the figure is currently around 20% and falling as new renewables like offshore wind power come on line.

Yet even a short-term “market impact” of importing coal may be a problem in itself, as it would threaten global climate safety. The fire in Australia is a reminder of how carbon emissions stay with the atmosphere long after an oil spill. In 2012, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described coal as a toxic brew, one with “an enormous amount of carcinogens.” As a result, Britain is facing “a long-term energy security problem” and attempts to meet Paris Agreement carbon reduction targets will be “very difficult,” according to a government report.

A nuclear-free future for the UK?

The US’s investment in shale gas has led to a surge in production, and reduced the price of gas in other nations. The outlook for shale gas in the UK is also limited; there are several planned nuclear energy stations to be built over the next few years, but they’re unlikely to be enough to replace coal.

If the UK does have a choice between coal and nuclear, a future of nuclear is quite the opposite of what environmental protection groups like Greenpeace would like to see.

The authors of Greening the Grid for a Future of Power are Urte Bergmann and Robert Kennett. Bergmann is an expert on Australian and European energy policy, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Energy Studies at Deakin University. She has a PhD in energy economics and policy, and worked as a sustainable energy economist for the EU Commission for a decade. Kennett is Chief Executive of HydroGeneration in Germany, a national utility and renewable electricity distributor. He also held the post of Deputy Secretary General of the EU Commission’s Energy Branch from 1996-98. They are keen to contribute to the debate about a future for the UK power sector as soon as possible.

This video contains footage contributed by Rebekah Nicholson and edited by Reuters Television.

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