Coal power: make it clean

Coal and energy: Walking away from CO2 commitment

David Douglass finds government policy absurd, but not surprising

The December report of the Commons energy and climate change committee was almost unbelievably absurd.

The first shock announcement was that every single energy and fuel bill payer in Britain would be hit by an average tax charge of £100 per annum. This would come on top of ever escalating fuel and power prices charged by the generators, which are set to continue rising year on year. The number of families living in fuel poverty is set to rise dramatically from its already unprecedented level. Deaths of the very young, very old and the poorest from want of power and fuel is certain to dramatically increase.

This additional tax, along with the fossil fuel tax, is supposed to fund the development of energy sources which do not produce CO2 or greatly minimise their use. Mostly the government sees this as a blank cheque for wind turbines, the most expensive form of energy generation and also the most inefficient (and, some might say, the most environmentally destructive in visual terms). It will also subsidise the expansion of the nuclear industry despite long-made promises that the latter should be self-supporting. Nuclear power is more than 100 times more expensive than coal power and set to become more so, as uranium deposits are exhausted through increased demand.

However, there was one glint of light for the almost extinct British coal mining industry when the clean coal project at Hatfield Main (Doncaster), based on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), was shortlisted in October for the next stage of the government’s announced £1 billion funding prize for the best system of CCS and clean coal energy production.

The Hatfield project, apart from its related clean coal-powered energy park and production of hydrogen for public vehicles and other potential transport systems as a by-product, has produced power with virtually no CO2 emissions (and a reduction of 90% in all other emissions). The European Union was so impressed that it declared it the very best of all the schemes being developed in Europe and probably the world, and advanced half a billion euros for the plant’s development. Private investors raised another quarter of a billion pounds, and the operators declared that the plant would be up and running within two years of the government’s awarding of the necessary funds. However, in its announcement the energy committee declared, without giving any reason, that such funds should not now be awarded to Hatfield. What small sums are available should go toward wind estates and nuclear.

The decision to close down five of the remaining 19 coal power stations in Britain and not invest in the clean-coal station at Hatfield is based on the idea that if we stop generating CO2 here, global CO2 production will fall and we can all breathe more easily. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly a slightly parochial one: coal in its current form supplies a minimum of 30% of UK power, and at times of peak demand up to 50%. Taking out coal capacity without any replacement by any other reliable source means, of course, that at times of peak demand, in cold weather, the already hard-pressed and creaky energy generation system will fail and power cuts will add to the already expected rising death rates from systematic fuel poverty. The other point is that Britain’s contribution to world CO2 emissions is negligible these days, while coal production and consumption around the world is rising. Coal provides 50% of the world’s power and CO2 emissions are rising. But the government does not seem to understand that there is no border keeping ‘British air’ inside the parameters of the island and others people’s air out.

Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA), which promotes alternatives to fossil fuels, claimed that “coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to rise, and by 2017 coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source.”1

Other facts from the IEA 2012 factsheet are:

So suppose, thanks to the government’s energy fund, that the whole island is covered in wind turbines and six new nuclear power stations are built (with all that means in terms of everlasting pollution). That will have a minuscule effect on global warming - and at the cost of secure energy supply and rising deaths. The world will continue to consume coal and produce CO2.

The Hatfield system, which could provide major clean-coal exports, can, on the other hand, be established within two years of development. It could be on stream worldwide between two and five years, with the potential of cutting world energy CO2 emissions by over 70% and in effect ‘solving’ the problem, at least until workable renewables can be established and developed. That the government has actually walked away from its commitment to cut world global emissions in the name of cutting global emissions is something it cannot be allowed to get away with.

How does the decision affect energy supply and prices here? Had Hatfield’s project been funded and started generating clean power, there would be no excuse for the fossil fuel/CO2 emission tax. Power generated from this project could be up to 50% cheaper than any other fossil fuel source and more than 100% cheaper than nuclear or wind turbines. Passed on the consumers, this would produce a ‘dash to coal’, as consumers switch to clean-coal power. It would spark a new prospect for long-term investment in the deep-mined coal industry, with everything that means for jobs and manufacture - not to mention the likelihood that the National Union of Mineworkers would ride back from the jaws of hell into a new-found strategic strength.

Against all of this, why on earth would even this coal-hating, mining-phobic government not award the funding to the clear winner? At first I came up with a thousand and one conspiracy theories along predictable lines to explain this. But the truth is simpler. The Hatfield project is ready right now: it requires the funding immediately, unlike any of the other projects. What has now emerged is that the treasury did a smash and grab raid on the £1 billion ‘prize’. It has gone - disappeared like fairy gold in the night. The project will almost without doubt now either fall flat from want of funding, or else somehow will have to be put on hold until the 2015-20 spending review.

So the decision is even more deeply anti-social and irresponsible than we thought. British deep-coal mines could well all be closed because of the dead weight of fossil fuel taxes and ongoing coal power station closures. The chance to make a serious, scientific impact on global CO2 emissions will be missed right at the moment when it is needed most. Once this ‘market’ and demand for clean-coal generation is lost to far less efficient versions, and nations across the world commit to heavy infrastructure investment in them, the window of opportunity will have been lost.

Meantime, Hatfield Main’s MP is … Ed Miliband, while the shadow energy minister, Caroline Flint MP, sits in the neighbouring Don Valley constituency, where the Doncaster coalfield is situated. Have we seen anyone jumping up and down? Have we seen a Labour amendment calling for restoration of the fund to Hatfield? No, and I doubt we will: Labour has no energy policy - certainly not one which is remotely relevant to mining communities, unions, consumers or anyone else. It is largely locked into the same short-sighted, eco-liberal policies which the Tories peddle. Why am I surprised?


1. www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/pressreleases/2012/december/name,34441,en.html.