...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, January 04, 2008

Day 2558: Old King Coal


Conservatory controlled Medway Council in Kent have voted in favour of a new COAL POWERED electricity station.

Coal is BAD because it produces the GREENHOUSE GAS Carbon Dioxide when burned. But things are a little more complicated than just "Coal: Bad".

The electric company, E.On, are promising that they will be REPLACING an existing coal station with a new, more efficient, less polluting one. Which sounds good, doesn't it? And, they say, they will be using the very latest in "Carbon Capture technology" further to reduce the climate change impact. So that is nice, isn't it?

Or is it?

Simply comparing the – hypothetical – better carbon emissions from the new plant to the old one sounds good, but it is not really the very best way of planning. For starters, you should do a PROPER calculation of the Carbon Footprint that involves adding in all the Carbon Dioxide that will be released by the process of BUILDING the new power station (and presumably demolishing the old one), add up the emissions over the plant's expected working life and then see if they are any better than keeping as you are.

But, more importantly, you should ask yourself: what are the ALTERNATIVES? The new coal plant MAY WELL be better than the old one, but is it cleaner than a nice WINDMILL FARM?

And how much do the promised "better emissions" rely upon as yet unproven carbon capture and storage processes?

I would also like to know where this proposed coal is to come from. Believe it or not, despite having billions of tonnes of coal reserves underneath our island, Great Britain nowadays IMPORTS the vast majority of the coal that we use for generating power. This, it seems to me, adds a whole load of extra carbon footprints to the TRAIL of GUILT! What is more, the coal that we import is often more SULPHUROUS than the stuff we dig up at home, meaning that it is worse for making ACID RAIN and other non-greenhouse pollution.

Of course, there are PRACTICALITIES involved here. A coal-fired station may well be QUICKER to build and CLOSER to where it is needed (though not THAT much closer than the Thames Array in the estuary that the Kingsnorth station will overlook). The company has an obligation to maintain the supply of electricity and at a reasonable cost. At the moment the financial incentive is on CHEAPER power, with the environment as at best a concern for the PR office. That is why there should be a proper CARBON TAX to rebalance the decision in favour of the most environmentally friendly option.

Anyway, "greening up" our fossil fuel based power generation can only be, at best, a STOP GAP solution while we get on a build a Hydrogen Economy. Even if it wasn't halfway to roasting the planet, coal – like gas and oil – is a FINITE resource that will run out. Sticking the CO2 back at the bottom of the sea is NOT going to magically replenish the oil reserves! The possibility of mopping up the CO2 by artificially triggering ALGAL BLOOMS (like the one that took place in the Silurian Period!) may do more HARM than good! It may even be "blooming stupid".

We need to think about LONG TERM SUSTAINABILITY as well as SHORT TERM PROFITS.

This would be Britain's first new coal powered station in thirty years. I think that this needs a LOT more thought.

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