13 December 2013: UK energy policy going very badly

Climate Answers tries to be optimistic. But it’s pretty hard to be anything but gloomy at the moment if you’re working on energy and climate issues and living in the UK. Today’s news is that Scottish Power has dropped a plan to build a 1.8GW offshore wind farm off Scotland (see Plans for £4.5bn Argyll Array offshore wind farm near Tiree dropped). The company cites wildlife concerns – particularly basking sharks – but also economic ones, saying that the project is not financially viable.  This comes a couple of weeks after RWE npower renewables dropped its plan to build a 1.2GW offshore wind farm in the Bristol Channel between England and Wales. RWE also blamed market conditions.

The government claims that it has great ambitions for offshore wind. Ambitions are admirable. But delivery is disappointing.

Last week the government gave several million pounds to a Drax/Alstom CCS project in Yorkshire (see Drax Wins U.K. Funds for Carbon-Trapping Venture with Alstom). The project is excellent – oxyfuel CCS being retrofitted to an existing coal station. However, the money will only fund a design project, Front End Engineering Design (or FEED). Drax and Alstom will need more grants to build it. Previous CCS projects at Longannet in Scotland and Kingsnorth in Kent have had FEED grants, but were never built.

At least all three main UK political parties are now pro-nuclear. The Liberal Democrats accepted the need to support nuclear at their party conference in the autumn. So a lot of new low-carbon generation capacity should get built. Unless, that is, the European Commission decides that the financial support being given to the company, EDF energy, is incompatible with EU state aid rules. These rules are complicated, and in the process of being revised. They don’t ban support for nuclear and in July the Commission decided that a Dutch policy to support a nuclear plant was consistent with state aid rules, because it will help meet a “common interest”. However, the Dutch plant will produce medical radioisotopes, not electricity. Low-carbon electricity from nuclear would also help meet a common interest – the control of climate change. But nuclear electricity is a highly politicised debate in the EU, unlike medical radioisotopes. The Germans and Austrians are deeply opposed. State aid rules say that grants should be given to nascent technologies, not established ones. Wind has been used to generate electricity since the late nineteenth century (the first windmill for electricity was, ironically, built in Scotland in 1887). The first nuclear electricity was generated in 1951. Nevertheless, anti-nuclear countries argue that wind is a nascent technology but nuclear an established one. So the Commission is having to investigate whether the UK’s policy on nuclear is compatible with state aid rules.

But at least the UK government has finally got its Energy Bill through parliament, so no new coal power stations without CCS will be allowed in the UK. Surely that’s reason to be cheerful?

Yes, but not very. The House of Lords amended the bill so that existing coal stations would have to limit carbon emissions or shut down. This would have brought the UK in line with what Obama is trying to do in the USA. However, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs in the House of Commons rejected the amendment. The Lords then tried again, but this time most Liberal Democrat peers voted with the Tories, so the attempt failed. So the UK will keep using dirty old coal stations for many years. At least Labour voted to shut it down, in both the Commons and the Lords.

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