Skip to content

Replacing coal

To no-one’s great surprise, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Amber Rudd, this week announced that the UK’s coal plants to be phased out within 10 years. That this was the government’s intention was never in doubt; coal had to go if the country was to meet its independently-set carbon budgets and agreed emissions reduction targets.

However, the balance of what Ms Rudd said was really the more interesting facet of her speech. In particular, she made it clear that meeting climate change targets would not be at the expense of energy security: “No government should ever take a risk on security, whether it be keeping our citizens safe or building a more resilient economy. This Government is focussed on securing a better future for Britain. And that includes energy security. Our modern society simply cannot function without power. Energy security has to be the number one priority…. the challenge we face is how we make sure that energy remains as the backbone of our economy, while we transform to a low carbon system.”

The question, of course, is what we replace coal with. In this case, the Energy Secretary performs a delicate but sensible balancing act, saying “Gas is central to our energy secure future. So is nuclear. Opponents of nuclear misread the science. It is safe and reliable. The challenge, as with other low carbon technologies, is to deliver nuclear power which is low cost as well. Green energy must be cheap energy.”

And there is conditional support for what she sees as a key area for the UK to contribute expertise: “So our approach will be different - we will not support offshore wind at any cost. Further support will be strictly conditional on the cost reductions we have seen already accelerating. The technology needs to move quickly to cost-competitiveness. If that happens we could support up to 10GW of new offshore wind projects in the 2020s. The industry tells us they can meet that challenge, and we will hold them to it. If they don’t there will be no subsidy. No more blank cheques.”

Hidden away and not, to my knowledge, generally reported, is another piece of sound common sense. “In the same way generators should pay the cost of pollution, we also want intermittent generators to be responsible for the pressures they add to the system when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine. Only when different technologies face their full costs can we achieve a more competitive market.”

This is an important statement. For too long, policymakers have fudged the issue of whether energy security or emissions reduction were the priority, and have avoided talk about the big increase in overall system costs which result from significant levels of wind and solar generation. Here, at last, we have a clear and straightforward analysis which gives some confidence that the government at least has its priorities right and has a Secretary of State likely to stick to her guns.

In case there was any doubt, the speech concluded with these lines: “Energy security provides the foundation of our future economic success. It is the top priority. Secure energy so people can get on with their lives. Affordable energy so the people that foot the bill, the households and businesses of Britain, get a good deal. And clean energy to safeguard our future economic security.”

Of course, this position doesn’t please everyone. Craig Bennett writing in the Guardian, for example, asks the question Is UK climate and energy policy hypocritical or just incompetent? The author decries the cutting of subsidies for renewables and the apparent favouring of gas and nuclear – “…the government has killed off the quick and cheap new renewable sources such as onshore wind, and is now depending on new nuclear and shale gas…” This, in his view, is because energy policy is now being run from the Treasury rather than DECC.

There is indeed a case to be made that the new Hinkley Point nuclear plant will be unnecessarily expensive. This is due largely to the fact that most large nuclear stations are currently effectively first-of-kind projects, with no economies of scale being evident. One solution proposed is to build what are known as Small Modular Reactors or 200MW or so capacity. These could be built in a factory and shipped to the installation site and their standardisation could see a significant reduction in cost.

Ms Rudd addresses this directly: “We must also build on our rich nuclear heritage and become a centre for global nuclear innovation… It also means exploring new opportunities like Small Modular Reactors, which hold the promise of low cost, low carbon energy.”It is good to see that the government is prepared to at least look at this approach seriously.

For those who consider that we need to have made really drastic cuts to emissions by 2050, gas represents too timid a step. Neither is there great enthusiasm for nuclear, although there are some committed to climate change mitigation who recognise the strong case for new reactors. But for many, renewables are the only answer.

And we shouldn’t forget that there are still plenty of eco-catastrophists around who see things in much bleaker terms than the mainstream IPCC view. For example, Andrew Sims, writing in the Guardian as part of the ‘100 months to save the world’ series of articles, talks about how scientific miscalculations could crash the climate. By his reasoning, current proposals for keeping below the nominal 2° danger point make far too optimistic assumptions about development of technologies which could reverse the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Other people are trying to keep a focus on Paris as the venue for key climate change negotiations rather than just the scene of the recent appalling massacre. Journalists are being turned away from the talks and public demonstrations have been banned, as we read in the Independent: While everyone focuses on the Paris attacks, the real threat to humanity is being ignored.

This is the context within which our elected leaders have to operate. There are public commitments to achieving a significant deal in Paris to tackle emissions, intense pressure from climate campaigners and, on the other hand, the obligation to provide energy security to ordinary citizens and voters. Amber Rudd seems to be steering a sensible approach and, if this strategy succeeds in the longer term, both domestic and industrial energy users will have reason to be grateful.