Or is it actually the case that things seem to be going in the right direction for once?
Yesterday saw what I think it’s fair to say was a remarkably green budget, by anyone’s standards, and today saw a pretty comprehensive shift in policy that signifies the end of unabated coal. Call me an optimist but I can only see the policy getting tougher from here and so the era of cheap fossil power is truly coming to an end and that has to be a good thing. Of course in reality all power sector emissions are already capped by Europe so we are not actually talking about a policy that will actually reduce emissions necessarily overall. It is more a green industrial policy for the UK and a test case for the world – so praiseworthy nevertheless.
The mantra of ‘let the market decide’ has been dropped and Government has now entered into the business of directing the kind of power stations that can and can’t be built. To be fair it has always been in this business it’s just since privatisation it’s been pretending that it hasn’t. And it has always been Labour policy to support coal. When they first came into power they banned the building of new gas stations – halting the dash for gas and unwittingly putting the break on our emissions reductions at the same time. They have been trying to kick start them ever since – today’s policy might just work.
The crucial test, however, will be what projects actually come forward and make it off the drawing board and into our countryside. There seem to be two distinctly different potential outcomes. We could see a hub of two or three new coal stations being built in the South East of England – they will likely all use so called ‘post-combustion’ technology to capture the CO2 from at least a fifth to a quarter of their operations. The remaining 75% being captured at some point in the future or the stations operations restricted. The other scenario is a hub in the North of England – possibly on Teeside or the Humber. Here the technology is likely to be pre-combustion capture (turning coal into gas and then burning it in a standard gas station). The actual volume emissions that end up in the atmosphere from these two competing technologies will be starkly different. The new policy only requires that part of a station be captured: for the SE hub this means high emitting coal carrying on for a while yet. Whereas in the North the unabated part will be using much cleaner gas.
Only time will tell. I personally hope that the fact that pre-combustion is much closer to being commercially proven means this technology will be first past the post and the North will be home to the first hub. Existing projects there, given a fair wind and a quick policy implementation timetable, could now be set in motion and be on the bars by 2015. Perfect timing for replacing some of our oldest and dirtiest stations which have to close around then. The good news is even the partially abated post combustion stations will be significantly cleaner than those old dinosaurs so there will be some benefit whatever happens.
So I am feeling optimistic. There is still plenty to do but it feels somehow the forces of good are gaining momentum. Let’s hope it lasts.