James Hansen, a leading climate expert, recently described Alex Salmond’s green energy policy as a “sham”, highlighting the hypocrisy of a government with the highest CO2 reduction targets, rapidly increasing CO2 emissions from new coal and a blind faith in clean coal technologies.
Salmond’s suicidal energy policy
The lack of investment and political will to develop renewables as part of Scotland’s energy mix leaves the First Minister heavily reliant on the development of new coal-fired power stations and open cast coal mines to avoid acute energy shortages. This reliance, of course, rests on the myth that by the time the power stations come online the technology will have been developed to capture and store carbon dioxide. Despite the apparent victory in Scotland with the SNP’s refusal to ‘go nuclear’, even under pressure from Westminster, the SNP is following the well-trodden path of governments that pray for technofixes and refuse to address the obvious first step to reducing CO2 emissions: reducing energy consumption.
Carbon capture technology does not exist now and will not for the foreseeable future, even according to the industry. Dr Hansen’s argument is that until it does, Scotland should not rely on coal-fired power. Indeed, Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland (and sometimes a ‘CCS believer’), said: “What any expert will say is it’s technologically proven at every stage of the chain, but putting those steps together at the scale of a large power station and doing so in a commercially viable way is yet to be proven.”
The myth goes that if it works, so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) has the potential to cut 90% of the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel power stations, allowing power stations to continue to generate electricity and meet climate change targets.
The CCS myth
Aspects of this technology already exist to various levels of maturity. Carbon dioxide is already used by the oil industry to enable exploitation of oil reserves that would otherwise stay in the ground. This technique is known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Carbon dioxide pumped into ageing oil fields dissolves the oil, making it flow more easily so that it can be pumped. However, there is no clear evidence that CCS technology will work and it is yet to be demonstrated on a commercial scale.
Using CCS would mean burning more coal than is used in a conventional coal plant (as capturing the CO2 would make governments exploit this cheap energy resource even more), so bar the impact of the carbon dioxide which is captured, all the other unsustainable impacts of coal are multiplied. Coal is the dirtiest of all fuels, from its mining to disposal of waste products. It releases toxic pollutants into the air, water and land, and destroys habitats.
The coal industry claims that with ‘clean coal’ technology these impacts are reduced, but even with the most cutting edge technology harmful emissions from coal plants are not eliminated, and in most cases they remain higher than for other forms of electricity generation. On top of this, these technologies are expensive making it highly unlikely that they will ever be universally applied.
(For a full explanation of why CCS won’t solve climate change see chapter on Carbon capture and storage / ‘Clean’ fossil fuels in the Corporate Watch report ‘Technofixes’ http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=3126)
Choosing CCS means choosing coal
Despite the absence of developed CCS technology, CCS is already being used as an excuse for the expansion of coal. For 20 years, no new coal power stations have been built in the UK. With many of the UK’s coal power stations coming to the end of their life and expected to close by 2015, the coal industry is using the possibility of future CCS technology to push the government into granting permission for a new generation of coal plants. Nationally there are seven coal power stations in the pipeline, including Longannet and Hunterston in Scotland. It is assumed that new plants will be built ‘capture ready’, so that CCS technology could potentially be added if it becomes commercially viable.
In practice, this means little more than designating space for a future carbon capture plant at the site. It is unclear whether the government will require all plants to be capture ready in any case. In the UK, a competition is taking place to develop a CCS demonstration project, with Westminster prepared to fund up to 100% of the cost of the technology. ScottishPower has entered Longannet, one of Scotland’s two existing coal-fired power stations, in the competition. The winner is due to be announced in the spring and the project should be operational by 2014. So the question remains: if ScottishPower does not win will they cancel their plans?
Salmond always wanted carbon capture to be tested off the Peterhead coast in the former Miller oilfield, and leading energy companies were ready to start work were it not for a UK government delay and a decision that carbon capture in Britain should be tried out on former coal mines. After the initial disappointment, it occurred to the SNP that using the former coal mines in Fife and elsewhere for carbon capture could get them out of a hole on justifying their policy on new domestic coal. Basically, the SNP are desperate to justify their energy policy on new domestic coal by getting carbon capture on the go.
The SNP’s advocacy of clean coal technology misses the point. The alternative to renewable energy should not be nuclear, as suggested by Westminster, and the alternative to nuclear should not be coal. Equally, the development of major renewable projects may not be as environmentally friendly after all as highlighted by a report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), showing that a major expansion of renewable energy into the seas around Scotland could threaten wildlife, increase risk to sea birds, seals, whales and sharks, with protected marine areas identified as potential sites for wave tidal schemes. Is it any surprise that mega-renewable projects will potentially do more harm than good when the companies such as npower developing these schemes prioritise profits through market-based solutions over avoiding a climate catastrophe?
The point is clearly that dangerous climate change is no longer avoidable, with its worsening effects being felt globally. Action needs to be taken to reduce emissions now and protect natural environments, be they the marine reserves of coastal Scotland or the the greenbelt of Midlothian.
What is needed is a transition to a zero carbon economy, starting with a dramatic decrease in energy consumption, a complete stop to the combustion of fossil fuels and a serious attempt to source our energy needs from a decentralised network of renewable energy. To some, this sort of sentiment is nothing but naïve idealism – but the SNP relying on an unproven, unviable and hypothetical technology to achieve an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 is truly naïve and idealistic.
Salmond’s energy plan is too risky, 31 January 2009 (The Scotsman)
Jenny Haworth: Carbon capture fine in theory but untested, 31 January 2009 (The Scotsman)
Dave Maddox: SNP’s aversion to nuclear at heart of dilemma, 31 January 2009 (The Scotsman) http://news.scotsman.com/politics/Dave-Maddox-SNP39s-aversion-to.4933250.jp
Technofixes: A critical guide to Climate Change technologies (Corporate Watch, 2008) http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=3126
Marine power expansion could kill off wildlife, 31st January 2009 (The Sunday Herald) http://www.sundayherald.com/news/heraldnews/display.var.2484375.0.marine_power_expansion_could_kill_off_wildlife.php