12 November 2009: Good on renewables and nuclear, less good on coal

On 9 November Ed Miliband, the UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary, published National Policy Statements outlining the government policy on energy. These are intended as guidance to the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), which, from next March, is due to grant or refuse planning permission on major energy and transport infrastructure projects. The statements are good on renewables, nuclear and electricity networks, but less good on coal (see also UK planning statements on energy, November 2009).

The delay in getting planning permission is the major barrier to infrastructure development in the UK. The Labour government has set up the IPC to try to speed up the planning process, with a promise that all decisions will be made within a year. This is desirable for renewables, nuclear power, energy grid expansion and coal with CCS. However, it will also be responsible for airport and road expansion, and for coal without full CCS, which are neither desirable nor necessary.

The existing land-use planning system is far from perfect. Controversial issues go to Public Inquiries, which last months or even years, and basically just give more influence to individuals or organisations with lots of spare money. Many Public Inquiries cover national policy issues as well as project or site-specific ones. They are not supposed to do this, but they do. The IPC is intended to focus on project-specific issues, with the National Policy Statements providing the policy framework. This is a good approach and would be strengthened if the National Policy Statements are clearly supported by parliament. Labour has said that if a parliamentary committee recommends that a debate should be held on a draft NPS, it will hold such a debate. Indeed, debates and votes should be held, so the IPC can only take decisions based on a framework that has been specifically approved by parliament. The Conservatives support the Policy Statements, so there would be no serious danger of them failing to be passed.

Ed Miliband said in his statement that “there will be no new coal without CCS”.  The statement says that:

… it is Government policy that all new coal-fired generating stations should be required to capture and store the carbon emissions from a substantial proportion of their capacity… New coal-fired generating stations in England or Wales are required to have CCS on at least 300MW net of the proposed generating capacity.

The government now has a good policy on CCS, promising to fund up to four large scale demonstration projects, covering both pre- and post-combustion.  However, it is not as good as Miliband claimed.   300Mw is certainly substantial in terms of capacity size compared to existing CCS demonstrations, but may be only about a sixth of the capacity of a new coal station, which is not a substantial proportion. And the proposed timetable, with the demonstration plants operational by 2020, is much too slow.  (For comparison, the EU timetable is for 10 to 12 plants by 2015.)

The UK debate on nuclear power is now dominated not by radioactive emissions or waste, but by money. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have said that there will be no public subsidy. This means that there will now be a debate about what does and does not constitute a subsidy. Direct grants obviously do, but what about a carbon tax or a stronger Emissions Trading Scheme? These are market interventions, increase the cost of electricity and benefit low-carbon options, including nuclear power. But, are they subsidies? Maybe, maybe not – it all depends on definitions and it doesn’t really matter. It is much more important to make the low-carbon transition than to debate definitions, and the low-carbon options are all at present more expensive than the high carbon ones. Renewables will ultimately provide cheaper and more plentiful electricity, but that is still decades away and the cost of transition must be paid for.

The urgency of doing this has been underlined this week by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which has said that there is already an increase in heat-related deaths, food poisoning and tick-related diseases. Europe is increasingly vulnerable to what are currently called “tropical” diseases. For example, Chikungunya, a disease spread by Asian tiger mosquitoes, has arrived in Italy (see EurActiv: Climate change ‘playing havoc’ with health systems).

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1 Comment

  1. Its a shame we can’t find a way to make the nuclear industry’s waste a much cleaner product because I feel that nuclear energy is really the way forward.

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