climate change energy politics

Britain to phase out coal by 2025

didcot coal power stationYesterday Britain’s energy minister Amber Rudd made a big speech aimed at ‘resetting’ Britain’s energy policy. Coming good on the joint promises made during the election, one of the key aspects of the plan is to phase out coal entirely by 2025.

This, for a change, puts Britain ahead of the pack. As far as I’m aware no other industrialised nation has pledged to phase out coal completely. Not Germany, despite it’s much vaunted energy transition. Not France, despite the fact that it uses very little coal and could cut it out of its energy mix relatively easily. But if Britain sets a target to leave coal behind, others may well follow.

It’s quite right for Britain to lead on coal, because we led on discovering it and exploiting it in the first place. It was here that coal was first used at scale, with production ramping up in the 18th century as steam engines became available. It was the energy source that powered the industrial revolution, which we in time exported around the world. Britain pioneered the use of coke in blast furnaces, and invented the steam train. As demand grew, we developed the techniques for deep pit coal mining.

In other words, Britain gave the world coal. The ancient Chinese and the Romans used it a little, but it was Britain that discovered exactly what you could do with coal, just how much work you could get out of it. It was Britain that worked out to get it out of ground in big enough quantities to power industry, run the transport network, and warm the nation’s homes. And of course, in that legacy came the great unintended consequence of climate change. It’s not something we need to feel bad about, as nobody could have known at the time, but historically speaking Britain has done more to precipitate global climate change that anyone else.

All of which makes it very appropriate for Britain to lead on closing the coal era. To truly complete the circle, we’d have to be leading on renewable energy too. Before the industrial revolution, we had sailing ships, windmills, water wheels and biomass – we were powered by renewable energy. As we end the coal chapter, there would be something very satisfying about moving into a new age of renewable energy, returning to the original power sources with 21st century technologies.

Unfortunately that’s not the government’s vision, and if you’ve been following along, you’ll know how it goes. In Amber Rudd’s words, “new nuclear, new gas and, if costs come down, new offshore wind will all help us meet the challenge of decarbonisation.” The plan is to replace coal with gas, preferably from fracking. That will halve the emissions from current coal generation and would be a good bridge towards decarbonisation, except that the government seems to think it’s a destination in itself.

The government is also deeply committed to large scale solutions. “Climate change is a big problem,” says Rudd. “It needs big technologies.” Away with your solar panels and community energy. Give me a European mega-grid and the most expensive power station ever conceived. Ironically, the bigger the technology the more likely it is to need government support. The “tough on subsidies” and “no more blank cheques” rhetoric is directed entirely at renewable energy, even as new subsidies are being created for nuclear power. We’re not dealing with logic here, but with an ideology of ‘big is beautiful’ and a conservative suspicion of anything green.

This makes the government’s reset on energy policy a very confused and hypocritical one, riddled with inconsistencies. It is determined to keep costs down, but it rules out Britain’s cheapest energy source in onshore wind. It has no plan for energy efficiency, which would be the easiest way to reduce costs. It claims to be committed to free market principles and to removing government interference, but is shamelessly picking winners in nuclear power and fracking. It says that energy security “is the top priority”, but puts gas front and center. Of all our energy sources, gas is the most vulnerable to interruption – is Amber Rudd aware that we’re increasingly dependent on Russia for our gas imports? It’s an embarrassing shambles, to be honest.

But we have agreed to phase out coal, so we got halfway there. And that’s still worth celebrating. To get the rest of the way across the decarbonisation bridge, we’re going to need a political reset.


  1. “As far as I’m aware no other industrialised nation has pledged to phase out coal completely.” I think you’re right about this. But there is an important sub-national example in Canada’s biggest province, Ontario (which has about 13 million people and is far bigger geographically than any EU nation). It shut down the last of its coal-fired power plants in 2014. Nuclear power continues to play a big role in Ontario, and there are lesser roles for gas, hydro, and emerging sources such as wind and solar. Nuclear is far from ideal, but I think Ontario has made the more responsible choice than Germany in focusing on shutting down coal first. It’s an example that deserves to be better known.

  2. What sensible answer to keeping the lights on do we have in the medium term other than gas?

    Wind is not so cost effective when you factor in the cost of the required backup and changes to the grid it requires. We need backup since wild energy like wind can not be relied on. Only tame energy like coal, gas,tradtional hydro or nuclear can be relied on.

    We have had a very calm September and October. Which has meant very little wind energy was generated. The argument that the wind is always blowing somewhere is shown to be rubbish since this calm was across the whole of North Western Europe. And this was prolonged calm. For example from 17 -20 October wind power in Germany, Denmark and Germany generated less than 5% of load. We could import Norwegian hydro and Swedish nuclear like Denmark but they can’t supply everyone.

    Storage can only hold power for a few hours at best, and at high cost. So back up capacity is required and given the uncertainty till now it looked like we were going to get Diesel backup. Much more polluting than gas.

    I have consistently told you we need gas to keep the lights on. The government has woken up to this. Lowering our carbon output while keeping the lights on is going to be expensive. At least now the government are going for the straight forward solutions rather than virtue signalling complex ones (wood pellets instead of coal!)

    1. Did you read the post? I said quite clearly that increasing our gas use is not a bad idea as a bridging strategy – ie a medium term option. That’s not how the government are presenting it, which is the big mistake.

      The government’s problem is that it seems to be blind to the contribution renewable energy is making. It provided 25% of our energy in the summer. There are any number of reports showing how renewable energy could go to 100% eventually, with energy efficiency measures, investment in storage and technologies that even out the peaks and troughs of demand. It’s technically possible, though not something that can be done fast, which is why the bridging is necessary.

      What’s missing here is that longer term vision. Reliance on gas long term is an odd choice, knowing what we know about the price trends of various energy sources. It’s also predicated on George Osborne’s fracking revolution, which is highly unlikely. No other country, even the much Poland, has managed to replicate America’s success here, and there are a bunch of reasons why the UK won’t either – mostly around our land and mineral rights laws.

      If the fracking doesn’t happen, then we’re more dependent on imports from the Middle East or from Russia. It’s a massive gamble, and the notion that this is a plan for energy security just doesn’t hold.

      1. The one thing we know about gas prices is that we can’t predict them in the medium or long term. Peak oil in its many forms is a fools game.

        Having very high levels of renewables is also a massive gamble and very expensive. Huge amounts of storage are required- something in the order of 20 TerraWattHours. The best solution is to use renewable energy to create hydrogen and then combine it with CO2 to make methane which can stored then be burnt in gas fired plants. This means will still have to have a parallel generation capacity at great expense but since it is likely we can convert the new gas plants the government wants built it suggests the sense of a dash for gas now.

        While making methane is the only large scale storage likely to work in the medium terms it would require about four times as much energy to make than it would produce so even more renewable capacity would be required at still vaster cost.

        It is still not true that consumers would pay less with renewable energy.

        1. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why renewable-hydrogen-methane is not ‘the best solution’, but I think you already know the flaws.

          As I’ve already said, a long term plan for a renewable based energy system depends on efficiency to reduce energy needs overall, then on spreading demand more evenly and reducing the need for a base load, and then on renewable technologies that can provide consistent and predictable power – hydro, geothermal, biomass, tidal, pumped storage, battery storage, etc. A decent percentage from nuclear would be great, if someone’s got a sane proposal.

          Don’t forget that the main use of gas is for heating homes, and it’s entirely possible to build homes that need almost no heating. In the longer term, that’s where we need to aim and why the zero carbon homes plan was a good one. (I know you disagree) The first and biggest element of a government energy vision ought to be an efficiency and retrofitting drive to get our miserable housing stock up to scratch, and unfortunately that’s not something we seem able to get right. Keep wasting one in three pounds spent on gas through badly insulated homes, and hope for fracking to come through.

          1. The trouble with what you outline is that it requires a lot of changes to the lifestyle of most people in the UK, which I don’t think they are prepared to make.

            We need to reduce carbon emissions but preserve business as normal. I know that many Greens what to change society but frankly, society doesn’t want to change that way. If the public are happy to waste the gas they pay for….

            1. The most obvious way to reduce carbon emissions is to eliminate waste. If climate change is real, changes need to be made – and guess what, people would save money and live in warmer homes. The idea that this is some kind of green social manipulation is just daft, and refusing to countenance any kind of behaviour change just means no meaningful action on the climate.

      2. The other point is that you are very concerned that Russia or Middle Eastern countries will effectively declare war on us and cut off the gas. Now this is a very remote possibility but you use it as a justification of many hundreds of billions of pounds of expenditure.

        Yet you don’t want us to spend far less on Trident to defend us from other remotely possible threats. I’m wondering what criteria you use to rank these threats. I mean why would Russia be prepared to blackmail us with gas but not nuclear weapons?

        1. How many countries has Russia threatened with nuclear weapons in the last 20 years? I mean genuinely threatened rather than the ‘remember I’ve still got the bomb’ willy-waving that Putin occasionally indulges in.

          How many countries has Russia bullied with gas? Either by cutting or off or threatening to cut it off?

          What’s the political price of Russia using its nuclear weapons, vs the political price of cutting off a country’s gas supplies?

          I think the ranking of these threats is pretty obvious – though I don’t actually think that’s the big risk. Russia knows that every time it plays that card, it undermines its future markets and ups the pressure for Europe to diversify supply.

          The far bigger issue is the instability that gas fosters. Remember who Russia’s biggest competitors are – Qatar and Iran. Both are desperate to get pipelines into Europe through Turkey, especially now that sanctions on Iran have been lifted. Now look at a map of the middle east and see where such a pipeline would need to run. It can either go through Iraq, which is going to be risky. Or it can go from the Persian gulf through Saudi Arabia, through Jordan, and into – ah – Syria.

          This is why Russia loves Assad so much – Assad, at Moscow’s bidding, blocked Qatar’s pipeline proposal in 2009. Qatar, with the CIA, then began training dissidents and fomenting rebellion in Syria to get rid of Assad. Naturally, Russia responded with weapons and support for the regime, although Putin is equally served by Assad or by general chaos. Either way, no pipeline gets built and he gets to keep his cheap gas monopoly.

          Obviously these things are complicated and have deep roots, but there’s a whopping great fossil fuel connection behind the Syria conflict, ISIS, and the current wave of terrorism. And as usual, it’s barely discussed.

        2. We would an Iran to Turkey gas pipeline have to go through Iraq? You do know they share a land border? They already have one pipeline and are planning to build another, neither goes into Iraq. You forgive me if I don’t rate your geopolitical insight here.

          Given that you don’t rate the threat that Russia will cut off our gas, why is that a threat we should spend hundreds of billions of pounds to remove? Trident is small change in comparison

          1. Yes, Iran and Turkey already have a pipeline across said border. It’s the southern gas fields that lie in the Persian gulf that are the issue – the ones that are shared between Iran and Qatar. The two countries were cooperating on that proposed pipeline that Assad blocked, and Iran is now making alternative proposals.

            I’m not suggesting a move away from gas because I’m scared of Russia, but because of climate change. The added security is a bonus.

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