What’s the main source of our electricity in Britain? If you were about to say gas, think again. In the last couple of years coal has leapfrogged back above natural gas and is currently supplying about 40% of our electricity.
That’s partly down to fracking in the US. As gas prices have plummeted across the Atlantic, American power stations have switched to gas. Coal prices have fallen and more of it has been exported, and the energy companies over here have been quick to seize the cheaper energy source, despite the fact that coal produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas. With coal in demand again, there has even been a small flurry of activity around Britain’s own remaining coal reserves, with new open-pit mines proposed in Wales, Staffordshire and the North East.
This is bad timing. In 2015 new EU regulations come into effect that limit the emissions from coal power stations. Under the Large Combustion Plant Directive, any remaining coal power stations would need to be retrofitted to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions and particulate pollution. If it is too expensive to re-fit, the power stations would have to close. A number of Britain’s oldest and dirtiest power stations were expected to shut or to be mothballed by 2015. Some already have, including Kingsnorth and Didcot A.
However, if the economics of coal is working in its favour again, then the energy companies may choose to re-fit their coal power stations and keep them open. If they did, then the biggest obstacle to Britain lowering its carbon emissions may survive for another generation.
It’s a fine line, and much may hinge on this week’s budget. The government has already made it easier for coal power to continue by rejecting an amendment on coal power to the Energy Bill, and by declining to set a carbon target for energy generation by 2030. If it now compounds that error by freezing the Carbon Price Floor this week, we may be watching our climate targets slip out of reach. The coal industry has been calling for a freeze. Without it, says CoalPro, the Carbon Price Floor “will suffocate long-term investment in coal” – which is of course exactly the point. The Carbon Price Floor is unpopular and flawed, but now would be a bad time to scrap it or freeze it. It could be just the little extra that tips the balance back to coal, and an energy technology unfit for the 21st century.