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Avoiding an energy leap in the dark

Published on 10 November 2011

ENERGY policy, specifically ensuring security while reducing carbon emissions, is proving one of the biggest challenges for decision-makers at national and global levels.

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The scale of the problem was re-emphasised yesterday by the International Energy Authority (IEA), which warned that on current policies, the planet is heading for global warming of 3.5C above pre-industrial levels.

This coincided with two announcements in Scotland that bring home the specific difficulty identified by the IEA: that unless a decisive switch towards clean energy is made in the next five years, the planet will be locked into high-carbon infrastructure, making it even more difficult and expensive to meet climate change targets and guarantee energy security.

North Ayrshire councillors’ formal objection to a new coal and biomass-fired power station at Hunterston on the Ayrshire coast is a perfect local example of the dilemma facing advanced economies across the world.

The proposal by Ayrshire Power Ltd would have been dismissed as a retrograde step long before now without the addition of a carbon capture and storage scheme intended to capture up to 90% of CO2 emissions. The problem with this is that the technology remains theoretical, with no demonstrator yet in operation.

That makes the decision by North Ayrshire council to side with the 21,000 objectors to the plan the correct one, despite the prospect of 160 permanent jobs and 1600 temporary ones in an area of high unemployment.

As with any major industrial development, there were concerns about the impact on the landscape and wildlife habitats but the fact the power station would not capture 100% of carbon emissions weighed most heavily with the councillors.

By contrast the agreement between Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and Shell to develop CCS technology at SSE’s gas-fired power station in Peterhead is to be welcomed.

This is not inconsistent. The power station (and its emissions) already exist, so the effect would be an immediate reduction in pollutants and a considerable amount of work has already been done to bid for EU funding.

Timescale is important because whoever wins the race to develop a viable CCS scheme will gain control of storage and delivery for the next 30 years. CO2 from the Peterhead plant would be transported easily to a Shell-operated gas field in the North Sea.

The future of the Hunterston proposal now rests with the Scottish Government. It must recognise the impossibility of promoting a low-carbon and high-carbon economy simultaneously when, as the IEA report makes clear, a sustainable future depends on moving away from fossil fuels.

CCS could provide the key to maintaining the mix of energy sources that is vital to ensuring supply while meeting CO2 reduction targets but it makes no sense to build new coal-fired stations before the technology is proven.

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