Given current Government policies, nearly half of the UK’s existing 40 to 50-year-old coal-fired generating capacity could still be operating in 2030, according to a new report by Imperial College’s Energy Policy and Technology Unit. This, says the Unit, directly contradicts current Government assumptions that existing coal will close as a result of age and/or because of local air pollution legislation by the mid-2020s.
“Imperial College’s economic modelling shows that it is unwise to simply assume that coal-fired power stations will all close in the 2020s. If government wants old coal stations to close it needs to ensure that happens through legislation," said the report's lead author Dr Rob Gross. “We modelled a variety of scenarios and, with the UK’s existing suite of energy policies, in every instance coal still played a role in generating electricity and 2030 emissions targets were missed.
“Our modelling shows that firm commitment to carbon pricing is very important to 2030 targets, but investors would have much more confidence if the Government also took a regulated approach, for example by extending the emissions performance standard to existing coal-fired stations.”
The report, 'Could retaining old coal lead to a policy own goal?', also argues that recent policy decisions which appear to encourage the life extension of existing coal plant through the 2020s may be deterring investment in the new, lower carbon and more efficient replacement capacity needed to ensure long term security of supply. In the report’s highest carbon scenario, coal-powered stations alone would emit over double the UK carbon targets in 2030 but meet less than one sixth of our electricity needs.
Jenny Banks, WWF’s Energy and Climate Change Specialist said: “Burning coal is by far the dirtiest way to generate electricity. Running one big coal-fired power station full time in 2030 would use over half of our carbon target for the power sector but generate just three per cent of our electricity needs. We’re pleased that the Government has recognised that it’s time to close old coal plants but actions speak louder than words. The current plans for bill-payers to help fund inefficient old coal plants from the 1960s and 70s to let them stagger on through the 2020s are hardly sending the right signals.”
Eliminating unabated coal
Welcoming the report, Lord Adair Turner, a member of the UK's Financial Services Authority and a former Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report update on climate change science makes it unequivocal that we must reduce carbon emissions dramatically to avoid major harm to human welfare. And we cannot achieve the required cuts unless we eliminate unabated coal from the electricity generating system.
“The Climate Change Committee recommended that coal generation should only be allowed in the UK in 2030 if fitted with carbon capture and storage. This would enable us to get emissions from electricity down to 50g per kWh. As this report makes clear, present policies could leave us in 2030 with so much unabated coal that electricity emissions could be 130 -240g per kwh, blowing a hole in plans to create a low carbon economy."
And he added: “Analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others has shown repeatedly that we can build a low carbon economy at low cost provided we plan well in advance and provide strong incentives to which business can respond. A clear commitment to get unabated coal out of the UK generation system is needed to provide certainty against which businesses can invest.”
See Imperial College's report at assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/wwf_coal_report_imperial_college_final.pdf.