The British government has launched what it descibes – with good reason – as “the most environmentally ambitious coal conditions of any country in the world”. As arguments over the future of coal power rage worldwide, particularly in the US, Britain’s Labour government has set a lead that it hopes will be followed in China, India and America.
It has made a commitment to “clean coal” technology – power stations fitted with equipment to capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions – which means that an important part of Britain’s future energy security and contribution to the fight against climate change will be based on an essentially unproven technology.
Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, has decided that no new coal-fired power stations can be built in the UK unless they are at least partially fitted with carbon capture and storage, and have the potential to be fully equipped by 2025. He is also promising to support up to four clean coal pilot projects from a new levy that will add 2 per cent to Britons’ electricity bills by 2020.
What this means is that at most four new coal-fired power stations can be built, and perhaps fewer, given that at least one of the projects supported by the new subsidy is likely to be a retro-fit on an existing coal plant.
The good thing about the British plan is that it will ensure that commercial-scale clean coal plants get built: a prospect that has often seemed uncertain in recent months. The various elements of the technology have all been deployed separately, and integrated plants have been demonstrated at a very small scale, but no-one has yet put the components together to build anything close to standard sized power station.
The downside is that it seems impossible for all the new coal-fired power stations that can be built under these new rules to replace the old coal capacity that is being lost as ageing plants are shut down. Coal provided 31 per cent of Britain’s power last year, but about a third of the existing coal-fired plants are due to close over the coming decade.
To replace the lost capacity, the use of gas – already supplying 46 per cent of the UK’s power – is set to rise. The government must also help that its efforts to support other technologies, particularly new nuclear plants and offshore wind farms, are successful. Otherwise, Britain’s CO2 emissions may fall, because gas is cleaner than coal for power generation, but its reliance on imported energy – most troublingly Russian gas – will grow.