The end of UK coal – views from Imperial

coal

UK Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced last week that UK coal power plants will be switched off by 2025. We asked experts across College for their opinions on what this means for energy security, renewable technologies, and climate change.

Dr Paul Balcombe

Research Associate, Sustainable Gas Institute

“The accelerated planned ramp down of coal power plants has been widely met with positive response, but the intention to fill the ‘energy gap’ with more gas power plants is somewhat more controversial.

“Gas is typically seen as the lower carbon fossil fuel because, when you burn it, it produces around half the carbon dioxide compared to coal. The problem is that there are other emissions that we must be careful about, in particular, methane emissions. Methane is the main component of natural gas and it is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide: 120 times more if you just look at the immediate impact.

“This means that wherever there is a leak or vent of gas across the supply chain, it has a large greenhouse gas effect. This effect isn’t necessarily large enough to negate the carbon benefit of replacing coal, but it means that great care must be taken across the gas supply chain in order to maximise the benefits of a switch to gas.

“The Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College London recently published a report on the methane and carbon dioxide emissions from the gas supply chain. The study found an extremely large range of emissions estimates, as well as a lack of transparent data on methane emissions.

“If the UK is to maximise the energy security and sustainability benefits of increased gas production and power generation, then comprehensive monitoring and mitigation of methane emissions across the whole gas supply chain is paramount.

 

Dr Rob Gross

Reader in Energy Policy and Technology, Centre for Environmental Policy 

“There’s lots to welcome in this speech. In many respects it’s a victory for common sense and something of a relief after a summer of nothing but cuts. Research from Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy argued for coal to be phased out over a year ago (http://bit.ly/ICEPTCoalReport). We’ve also argued consistently that innovation in renewable technologies is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but needs to see sustained support from government. I also welcome news about continued support for offshore wind, as we believe costs can come down significantly. The devil will be in the details that emerge after this announcement, the conditions that it could create for investment, and in spending commitments from the UK government post-2020. “

 

Professor Richard Templer

Director of Innovation, Grantham Institute 

“Replacing coal with gas is a good step, but only in helping us to make a transition to a world in which we no longer use fossil fuel for primary energy production.

“I am perturbed therefore that I cannot see a clear, strategic roadmap that shows how the government intends to use gas as a bridge to a decarbonised electricity supply.

“Any arguments that we cannot afford to push for a decarbonised electricity supply ignore the reality that if we are to avoid dangerous climate change we can only release a further 900 Gt CO2 into the atmosphere. The costs of exceeding this limit or delaying action to decarbonise are greater than  taking action now.

“What the Government need to recognise is that investment is moving away from fossil-fuel business and seeking out low-carbon alternatives. The global average growth rate for low-carbon technology since 2008 has been 11% and is now worth $5tn. This compares to global average growth of GDP in the same period of 3%. The UK is already lagging behind with a growth rate just slightly over half the global rates. The government’s actions are swimming against the tide and will leave the UK an also ran in the development of the low-carbon economy, the economy which will dominate global development this century.”

 

Ajay Gambhir

Research fellow at the Grantham Institute, speaking about analysis by the AVOID 2 project

In general, coal and gas without carbon capture and storage play a diminishing role in electricity generation, with electricity becoming very low-carbon (in some scenarios virtually decarbonised) by 2050. However, some scenarios do show persistence of gas to 2050 even without CCS, suggesting that in some countries it could be a bridging technology for the next decade or so. We use a range of models with different assumptions on technology costs and potential, which is why all models and scenarios don’t show the same picture.

The models show that in scenarios where the world continues with its current level of emissions reduction effort to 2020, and then decarbonises at lowest global cost to meet a 2°C target by 2100 (which means limiting average temperature increase above pre-industrial levels by 2°C, with 50% likelihood), there could be between 700-1,400 GW of economically viable coal plant switched off by 2030. This is equivalent to around 1,000 coal plants worldwide.

If this doesn’t happen, and coal is kept on the electricity system beyond 2030, then this would raise emissions reduction costs (as greater reductions would be needed in sectors other than electricity) and make it harder to meet the 2°C target. For more information on coal retirement see our policy card on the energy systems transition. In a forthcoming report, we show that slower coal phase-out contributes to emissions reduction costs and makes the 2°C target harder to reach.

Whether it’s feasible to switch off this much coal plant whilst it’s still economically viable is a political question. The key is to ensure that – globally – as few new coal plants as possible are built now, so that the plants on the system in 2030 are near the end of their lifetime, and to ensure that all new plants can be retrofitted with CCS wherever possible. We have very little carbon allowance left if we’re serious about the 2°C target, so now is not the time to be investing in any region in carbon-intensive technologies like coal.

Renewables are key to a low-carbon economy according to AVOID 2 analysis. So it is imperative that renewable electricity technology market growth is supported until these technologies can be cost competitive (under a meaningful carbon price), which is still a few years away in many countries, and certainly for solar PV in the UK. Rapid policy changes including the sudden reduction or withdrawal of support for such technologies is unlikely to help foster their development and deployment.

 

Malcolm Grimston

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Policy 

“If offshore wind is the cheapest already then clearly it should not be subsidised at all and the Secretary of State’s stance is correct.  If solar is going to be cheap within two years then any subsidies should stop at that point.  And how are the system-level costs to be managed, e.g. the need for a very much larger grid to cope with wind when it is available while still maintain links to a dispatchable system of the current size when it is not, and the requirement for large capacity payments to compensate dispatchable capacity for its loss of market when renewables are operating? These are costs caused by and therefore ultimately attributable to variable renewables.  From the point of view of the consumer it doesn’t matter where those costs are allocated, they still end up on their bills.

“The nuclear industry is reaping the whirlwind for a number of claims that simply did not stand up to common sense – should the renewables and their supporters be doing the same?

“The Green Party in its manifesto (page 23) this year said that onshore wind and solar are ‘mature’and we have the Green movement submissions to the Commission’s Hinkley State Aid investigation saying there should be no subsidies for mature technologies ( e.g. NFLA to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee).  It then becomes a very difficult argument to make that these subsidies are justified – in effect Rudd has simply picked up the Green Party’s argument and run with it.  Nuclear has at least belatedly accepted that it cannot operate in a market free of ‘subsidies’ (whatever definition one cares to give the term), which is the case for renewables as well unless the evergreen storage revolution which is always ten years ago actually materialises.  It ultimately simply plays into the climate sceptics’ hands to go forward with such a glaringly self-contradictory argument.”

 

 

Dr Charlie Donovan

Principal Teaching Fellow at Imperial College Business School

“The cost of renewables has fallen dramatically, the problem for their wide scale deployment is not the basic technology but access to finance.

Subsidies to fossil fuels globally far exceed subsidies to renewables, the IMF estimate fossil fuel subsidies are more than ten times those of  renewables subsidies. The future of energy belongs to smart, flexible networks.  Coal fired power generation simply doesn’t fit.”

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