Coal use for electricity production today
Currently in the UK, around 80% of all our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and using energy. Burning coal, gas and oil emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributes to climate change. Together, these fuels provide around 90% of the UK’s primary energy supply. Some of these fossil fuels are used directly – petrol and diesel (oil) in our vehicles for example; but some are burnt to produce the electricity we use. Although the burning of coal in fires to heat our homes directly has reduced dramatically over recent decades, we still rely on it to produce most of our electricity by burning it in power stations. If we are to play our part in tackling climate change in the UK, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions swiftly and sharply, it is clear that our methods of energy production must change. There are many ‘lower carbon’, ‘carbon neutral’ and even ‘zero carbon’ methods of energy production that offer us better ways of producing energy, (especially electricity) in the UK.
Replacing or changing coal use in the UK?
In Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future (the report launched in July 2013 by the Zero Carbon Britain project at CAT), we opt for 100% renewable energy production – wind (onshore, and offshore), solar, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, and others – all ‘zero carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’. With these, and ‘carbon neutral’ synthetic fuels, we can produce enough energy for the UK at the right times – making sure our energy demands are met at all times. In the UK today, however, high on the energy agenda is the conversion of our current coal plants to biomass (see article here about why this is a bad idea), but also about fitting current coal power stations with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) systems. In these plants, coal is still burnt to produce electricity, and most (but not all) of the carbon dioxide emitted is ‘captured’ before it gets into the atmosphere, and then ‘stored’, usually in old oil and gas fields under the sea or underground. This means electricity made from coal plants fitted with CCS can be classed as a ‘lower carbon’ energy source. So, why then, was there outrage from campaigners and environmentalists at the recent COP19 summit – the UNFCCC international negotiation on climate change – when the International Coal and Climate Change summit took place in Warsaw at the same time? Especially since the World Coal Association stated that the coal summit was meant as a contribution, not an alternative, to the UN talks? And why don’t we include coal and CCS in our Zero Carbon Britain scenario?
What is wrong with coal and CCS?
First of all, current standard methods of producing coal, for example mountain top removal for open cast coal mining, are extremely destructive locally and can be very dangerous. Also, coal (or any fossil fuel) power coupled with CCS does not provide a solution in the longer term. There are limits to the CO2 storage capacity of old oil and gas fields, meaning that in the longer-term they would have to be phased out entirely, and replaced by other energy production systems. Whilst it might seem sensible, or cost-effective to use the current infrastructure we have for burning coal, and simply add CCS, it is likely that this will raise the cost of coal-generated electricity, and increase the requirement for energy by at least 20%. We would have to produce far more energy to make CCS systems work, increasing our demand, potentially for coal itself. Furthermore, storage locations for the carbon captured through CCS, must be monitored indefinitely to minimise leakage. We would need to continually pay to keep the carbon safely locked away. This implies unknown costs and effective risk management long into the future, which cannot be guaranteed. And will it really be safely locked away? Whilst abrupt gas leakage events might be seriously damaging to local eco-systems (especially if the storage is underwater), diffuse leaks can be more difficult to stop and would, at least in part, reverse the effect of capturing the carbon dioxide in the first place, making it questionable whether or not coal and CCS would really provide the carbon reductions it promises.
Electricity is easy with renewables!
Finally, the thing that strikes us most when creating our Zero Carbon Britain scenario is that electricity – what we currently use coal to produce – is what is produced by almost all renewable sources – wind, wave, hydro, solar PV. It’s easy to produce plenty of electricity from renewables, and its much more efficient than burning coal where lots of energy is lost in the conversion process. In fact, given all the estimated resources in the UK, Zero Carbon Britain research suggests we can produce much more electricity than we require from renewable sources – even if we electrify lots of our systems like transport and heating. So, since not all the greenhouse gas (or carbon dioxide) emissions are captured from an electricity-producing coal plant, even when fitted with CCS, why opt for an electricity production method that is only ‘lower carbon’ (and is less efficient) when there are so many options that are more efficient, and truly ‘zero carbon’? Renewable electricity generation technologies offer larger and more secure greenhouse gas emission reductions. They will last us long into the future, provide jobs, and would allow us to be in control of our own energy production. The UK is blessed with great renewable resources – we are located in one of the windiest places in the world – and our future energy system should play to these strengths.