Are new gas-fired power plants the ‘bridge fuel’ to a low carbon future?

By Jon Crooks

Over the course of the next three days, I’m going to produce a series of three blogs examining the prospects for UK energy policy. By this I specifically mean the power sector (how we generate our electricity). In this first one I’m looking at the role of gas power plants

 

As ever, it’s worth first looking at the longer-term perspective in terms of the UK’s low-carbon transition. In this respect, the good news is that 2015 saw record contributions from low-carbon sources to the electricity generation sector, as Carbon Brief recently concluded, but the UK still relies on fossil fuels for 54% of its power generation needs.

“The UK’s fifth carbon budget, recently passed into law, will require the power sector to be largely decarbonised by 2030. Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement on climate change means the UK has pledged, along with almost 200 other nations, to almost completely decarbonise all energy use soon after mid-century.” – Carbon Brief

With this in mind, Amber Rudd’s announcement last November that power generation in the UK from coal would be phased out by 2025 and the principle replacement would come from new gas-fired power stations, raises some serious questions. A report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in February 2016 asked a similar question:

“Can gas, by substituting for coal, act as a ‘bridging fuel’ to a low-carbon UK energy system and, if so, how much gas use does such a bridge entail, and over what period of time?”

The advantages are clear. Natural gas has significantly lower CO2 emissions on combustion per unit of energy delivered than coal or oil. Also, as building  experts at EC Harris point out, Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plants (CCGT) also combine the benefits of proven technology, flexible load capacity (their output can be adjusted relatively quickly to meet demand) and being relatively predicable in build and cost.

The other key argument is that CCGT can be used to improve security of supply during the period where low carbon technology is being developed and it can be used to meet peaks in demand, even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Historic trends

Looking back, the substitution of coal by gas in the UK’s energy system has been happening since the 1980’s, as this diagram shows:

infrastructur_660

Thirty two CCGT plants were given the go ahead between 1990 and 2013.

Current trends

The report by UKERC in February 2016 suggested that there was some scope for this to continue:

These substitutions meant that by 2014 the share of coal in UK primary energy consumption had fallen from 40% in 1970 to 16%, while gas use had increased from 5% to 47%. Of the remaining coal use in 2014, nearly 80% was in the electricity sector. Replacing this immediately with 30 GW of CCGTs, operating at the 40% load factor that was the average for such power stations over 2010-2014 could reduce emissions by over 80 Mt CO2-eq per year. This is a significant reduction, exceeding the emission reductions required under the 3rd carbon budget covering the period 2018 to 2022.

You can see the attraction. However, the report goes on to say:

“After 2025, if the carbon targets are to be cost-effectively met, the use of gas in power stations would need to decline, especially if they were not fitted with CCS… This would raise questions as to the economic viability of investing in these gas-fired stations, rather than low- or zero-carbon power generation, in the first place.”

The UKERC report concluded that gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system. Their analysis showed that gas could only act as a bridge from 2015-20 and is…

…more likely to provide a short-term stop-gap until low- or zero-carbon energy sources can come on stream. 

However, according to recently published figures from the new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we can see that renewables share of the electricity generation sector was up five percentage points in 2015 while coal-fired power generation continued to plummet.

Chapter_5_web-page-007 (1)

Source: Electricity: Chapter 5, Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics (DUKES)

Electricity generated from coal reduced in market share by a massive 8% from 30% to 22% and gas remained relatively steady. The winners were the renewables sector, increasing its share from 19% to 25% and nuclear increasing from 19% to 21% as some capacity came back on line. The take home message from this is clear. Based on current trends, renewables is successfully filling the gap left by coal, not gas.

Methane leakage

Whilst CO2 emmisions from gas-powered plants may be lower than coal, methane leaks could mean that gas emerges worse than coal in emissions terms overall. Global methane emissions have been rising continuously since 2007.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak in California, which was eventually plugged after nearly four months trying to contain it, brought new attention to methane. The gas is roughly 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a driver of climate change over a period of 20 years, or 35 times as potent over the span of a century. The Aliso leak spewed enough methane into the atmosphere to equal the greenhouse gases emitted by more than 440,000 cars in a year.

In fact, an emphasis purely on long-term solutions and mid-century goals can obscure the fact that the worst effects of climate change may become irreversible if we don’t take aggressive action now. Controlling methane emissions is said to be the single most important move we can make to alter the near-term trajectory of climate change. Methane emissions cause one quarter of the increased warming we are currently experiencing. 

New CCGT power stations

As UKERC have pointed out, if new gas-powered stations are to be built, they will need to operate on lower and lower load factors, which is something that investors will doubtless take into account in their decision whether to invest. This means that new gas-fired power stations, like nuclear, needs significant and long term government subsidy in the form of future returns if they are to be built.

GE Power and DF Energy are building a new gas-fired power station in Carrington, Greater Manchester for Carrington Power. The 880MW power plant will enter commercial operation  in 2016 following the three-year construction period and will generate enough electricity to supply the needs of around a million homes. This is new fossil-fuel infrastructure, capable of operating well into the 2030’s, long after we should have decarbonised our power sector.

In contrast, perhaps reflecting the new realities, newer projects may be struggling to get off the ground. Energy firm Carlton Power was awarded a subsidy contract by the Department of Energy and Climate Change last year to build a new 1.9 GW  plant at Trafford in Greater Manchester – big enough to supply power to 2.2 million homes. The £800 million plant was due to start generating in October 2018, but Carlton Power has said it can no longer meet that date and has so far failed to secure financial backers for the project to go ahead at all, and this despite government subsidy.

Conclusion

Why waste taxpayers money on long-term subsidies of this kind when it is proven that renewables are already taking up the majority of the lost coal-powered capacity and we won’t even be able to make use of these new gas power plants beyond 2025-2030?

Yes, we need baseload power to iron out the fluctuations in supply from wind and solar, but this can be achieved in other ways.

Much will depend on other developments in the wider energy system – such as new nuclear, the scale of renewable energy deployment and the availability of key technologies, but these developments are already taking place.

Whilst the debate around what should make up our energy mix in the future will rage on and the UK Government must not back down from its commitment to remove all coal-fired power generation by 2025, equally, policy makers must think very carefully about how best to replace that capacity. A further ‘dash for gas’ may provide some short term gains in reducing CO2 emissions, but it would not be the most cost-effective way of doing so and methane leaks could represent a far worse problem.

In the upcoming second blog of this series, I will begin to consider whether a transition to 100% renewable energy is possible without building any new fossil fuel or nuclear capacity… 

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The case for a net zero climate change target

By Jon Crooks
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The Paris agreement necessitates an increase in our long term climate target to 100%. Or, in other words, we now need to set a ‘net zero’ emissions target.

“The House of Commons should …set a date by when the UK will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) should then be asked to advise on what the date for the target should be, with that date then set in secondary legislation.” – Sandbag, ‘The case for a net zero climate change target”, 2015

Paris was the first truly global effort to reduce emissions. It lays the foundations for increasing international action and aims to hold the increase in global temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C and to reach net-zero global emissions of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century.

This is more ambitious than the basis of the UK’s current statutory target for 2050, which is to reduce emissions to 80% and was based on the previous aim to hold the temperature rise close to 2C.

The Climate Change Act 2008

The UK signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1995 and The Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 to establish a framework to develop an economically credible emissions reduction path in line with that agreement. In doing so the UK showed leadership internationally by committing into law the action we would take in tackling climate change.

The Climate Change Act included a requirement on the Government to set legally binding ‘carbon budgets’ – a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period.

CCC_website_logoThe Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was set up to advise the Government on the carbon budgets and report to Parliament on progress made in reducing emissions. 

The first four carbon budgets have been put into legislation and run up to 2027. The proposed fifth carbon budget’s 57% cut in emissions by 2032 was laid out before Paris by the committee, and has yet to be legislated on.

In a letter to energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, the CCC said that:

“…the pledged contributions by the EU and others have not yet changed. On that basis we repeat our recommendation that the fifth carbon budget be legislated at 1,765 MtCO2.”

This is very disappointing as we’re failing to increase the ambition in light of the Paris climate deal. Whilst we could take aim at the CCC for the advice given, as some campaigners have done, the fact of the matter is they are working to legislation that is now, quite frankly, out of date.

What should this mean for the UK?

The former Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, wrote in the Guardian last November, even before the Paris summit had begun, conveying what the science was already telling us; that we would need to go further with our emissions targets to achieve net-zero emissions at some point in the second half of this century. The Paris Agreement subsequently quite rightly acknowledged the very same thing.  

Initially, this means switching to 100% clean energy by 2050 and making our energy system more efficient and productive. It’s also about putting in place the right infrastructure – buildings and transport. Further down the line we will need to make more savings in emissions in more difficult ways and it will mean cancelling out any residual emissions from agriculture and industry by capturing carbon from the atmosphere through new technology and/or biological means – creating carbon sinks through reforestation and sequestration in the soil.

The net-zero emissions goal is crucial and already many cities and companies are adopting this goal. As Ed Miliband pointed out:

“…the right step now would be for Britain to become the first major country to enshrine net zero emissions in law, with the date determined by advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change.

He went on to say that that this:

“…would show our determination to face up to this existential challenge. It will provide an essential framework for business and government so that we make the right decisions now on key energy and infrastructure issues. And it will inspire the inventors, engineers and businesses that can deliver on this challenge.”

From Ed Miliband’s conversations with people across the House of Commons, including the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Conservatives such as Nick Hurd and Graham Stuart (chair of Globe, the international parliamentarians group on climate change), it is clear there is cross-party support.

Ed Miliband again:

“Paris must be the start of a journey of the whole world towards this goal. And far from this commitment holding Britain back, we can be a leader again on climate change. Leadership which does not mean harm to our economy, but will put us ahead in the race for the new jobs, businesses and advantages of this new world. I hope the government will support this initiative. We can build an alliance, put aside our party differences as we have before, and seize this moment.”

Conclusion

Now that COP21 in Paris is over, we know the direction of travel, and attention is turning to the hard work of getting there. To use an analogy put forward by Anthony Hobley, CEO of Carbon Tracker at the Hub Eco Series event I attended, it’s like we now have planning permission to build a house, but now we have got to get on and build it.

Before we start laying those foundations and building that house, we need to go back to the architect and make sure everybody’s got a copy of the plans. Paris was an amazing achievement, but it’s a global deal that is underpinned by individual countries all doing their bit to to achieve the same goals. The UK took the lead in producing GHG emissions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Industrial Revolution that began here ultimately transformed society into the fossil fuel dependent society we have become.

It is right therefore that we also led the world in taking action to reduce emissions by becoming the first country to legislate for deep, long-term cuts and it is essential that we continue this leadership and remain on track by introducing updated legislation and making the right decision about the period to 2032, which the government now faces.

Perhaps we need to look to history for how we improve current legislation. The 2008 Climate Change Bill was preceded by a Private Member’s Bill of the same name drafted by Friends of the Earth and brought before Parliament on 7 April 2005. Would FoE be willing to draft an amended 2016 Climate Change Bill based on the Paris Agreement?

A Private Member’s Bill needs a sponsor, who can be any member of parliament (Miliband for example, though it might gain more traction if it came from one of the two Conservatives mentioned – Nick Hurd or Graham Stuart).

Looking back again at the history of the the first Climate Change Act, shortly after the 2005 general election, 412 of the 646 Members of Parliament signed an early day motion calling for a Climate Change Bill to be introduced. Only three other early day motions had ever been signed by more than 400 MPs. On 8 June 2008, following the Second Reading of the Bill, only five members of the House of Commons voted against it.

I think this can be done, we just need to build the political will.

Further Reading:

In January, a report was commissioned by Sandbag to explore why the UK, in the light of the Paris Agreement, could consider an additional ‘net zero emissions’ long-term goal.

 

Originally posted on thebeardyguy.com on 19 January 2016