Gordon Brown is about to make a decision that will bring into sharp focus his true attitude towards energy policy and climate change.
If the government gives the go ahead to construct a new dirty coal power plant at Kingsnorth, it will send a clear signal of their intention to build a new generation of power stations that will leave Britain reliant on coal power for future decades.
Today there is widespread concern at the rising cost of living. Rising prices at the petrol pump, growing electricity and heating costs and inflated food bills are a direct consequence of the rising price of oil. Fossil fuels are showing a frightening degree of price volatility. Coal is no exception. Once regarded as cheap, it too is now rocketing in price. Only a year ago the government was planning on the basis that coal would reach $70 a tonne over the next decade, at worst. But coal has already topped $140 a tonne - and analysts predict that the price will keep on rising.
Supplying Britain’s energy through coal is not only increasingly expensive, it is also less than secure. The UK’s declining coal reserves means we already import nearly three quarters of our coal. We now burn more Russian coal than British. With gas reserves also dwindling a decision to build more coal power stations will render us even more reliant on imported fossil fuels.
There is another way of doing things. Creating genuine energy independence in the UK if the government makes the necessary investment in renewable electricity from known technologies like wind and tidal power.
Once onshore wind turbines were dismissed as expensive. Today they are our cheapest source of electricity - £34/MWh compared to £38/MWh for gas. Offshore wind is more expensive, but unlike fossil fuel technologies, it is projected to fall in price just as onshore wind has done. With a revolution in renewables and improved energy efficiency we can also use our domestic gas and coal to supply necessary back up power when the wind doesn’t blow. This will minimise the need for imports and improve the security of our energy supply.
It would also help to protect the environment.
To his credit, Gordon Brown has adopted a bold renewables target. The stated aim of the government is to ensure that 15% of our energy is generated from renewable sources by the year 2020. That’s a meaningful ambition which has generated support across Britain’s political parties. But the government’s business department seems set on paying for renewables in other countries as a means to exempting itself from meeting the 15% target in Britain itself. By following that course we will not only sacrifice potential energy security gains but the government will send a clear signal about its lack of commitment to tackling climate change.
The Business Secretary, John Hutton, assures us that Kingsnorth and any other coal power stations constructed in the near future will be ‘carbon capture ready’. In other words they will come into service as conventional coal power stations, with all the carbon emissions that involves. The government hopes that the technology for capturing that carbon can then be developed, scaled up and retro-fitted to the new plants. That is unacceptable. By giving the go ahead to new coal power before carbon capture technology is fully functioning, the government will only lessen the incentive to develop it.
WWF’s report this week reminds us that the concerns about acid rain of the 1980s led to power plants being made sulphur capture ready. But despite the technology having been demonstrated decades ago, it is only now that plants are being made to clean up or close. We can’t risk our climate on such feeble foundations. Of course we must trial carbon capture technology. But that must not be an excuse for allowing other plants through until they can capture carbon from day one.
China – along with other developing and polluter countries - will only be convinced to act when wealthier states, including the UK, demonstrate real resolve to deliver a genuine low carbon economy. Investment in renewable energy and operational carbon capture on conventional plants are key steps to reaching that objective. So let’s seize the opportunity to increase our energy security and while putting our economy on course for a low carbon future. The stakes could not be higher.