In the past week both Canada and the UK have announced a phase-out of conventional coal-fired power plants. Could this be the beginning of the end? Are we seeing the first stages of a global moratorium? Too soon, to tell of course. But it’s encouraging.
First, came the British news:
Any new coal-fired power stations built in Britain will have to be fitted with cutting-edge technology to capture their carbon emissions, the Government announced yesterday in a revolution in energy policy.
As the technology is in its infancy and still unproven, new generating stations would have to be built from scratch with demonstration plants attempting to capture emissions from about 300 megawatts of capacity, or about a quarter of a typical big plant’s output. But after 2020, as long as the technology had been proven, CCS would have to be retro-fitted to all new stations to cover the whole of their emissions, [Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed] Miliband said.
That’s just about what Jim Hansen has called for: an immediate moratorium on construction of any new plants that don’t include CCS technology, and dismantling of any plants without it by 2020.
In Canada, the news is similar:
The federal government is planning sweeping new climate-change regulations for Canada’s electricity sector that will phase out traditional coal-fired power.
Any new coal plants will have to include highly expensive – and unproven – technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions and inject it underground for permanent storage, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said in an interview yesterday.
The concept is that, as these facilities are fully amortized and their useful life fully expended, they would not be replaced with coal,” the minister said.
He added that coal would be an option if it produced near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The minister was attending a meeting of major emitting countries in Washington.
As commercially viable CCS is at least 15 years away (and like fusion power, probably always will be), it looks like it might be time to start dumping stock in any utilities heavily invested in coal. Even if there is a breakthrough in CCS sooner than expected, it’s going to make coal far more expensive than most of the alternatives.
Note that the plants considered for demonstration CCS in the U.K. are close to depleted oil and gas beds under the North Sea, making it easy to take care of the storage part of the equation. Some U.S. plants enjoy comparable advantages, but most do not.
In both countries, we’re talking about relatively low-hanging fruit. the U.K. used to have a monstrous coal industry, but Margaret Thatcher took care of that (for reasons that had nothing to do with climate change). In Canada, most coal-fired plants are scheduled for decommissioning by 2020 or 2025, and coal only supplies 18 percent of the country’s electricity, so it’s not too difficult to imagine a coal-free Canada by 2020, regardless of CCS evolution.
In the coal-reliant American states, the political inertia is considerable, but if a way can be found to compensate the Virginias then I’d say the writing will be on the wall in the U.S., too.