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Europe’s coal plants could stay open despite air pollution rules

  • 25 Jul 2014, 17:25
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Rich

There is a widely held view that tough EU air pollution rules will force most coal-fired power stations to close by the early 2020s. But that simply isn't true, according to campaign group Sandbag.

It explains why in a new report called " Europe's failure to quit coal". Its plant-by-plant analysis finds that 110 gigawatts of EU coal capacity - nearly three-quarters of the total - will be able to stay open despite air pollution rules.

The remaining 40 gigawatts could stay open too, Sandbag says, with 14 gigawatts of that in the UK. It adds that recent policy changes make it more attractive for UK plant to continue to operate.

We've taken a look at why Sandbag says everyone's been getting it wrong on coal.

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Why measuring fugitive methane emissions from shale gas production matters

  • 24 Jul 2014, 14:40
  • Mat Hope

CC 2.0 Tim Evanson

As an ever-increasing number of countries consider exploiting their shale gas resources, and researchers scramble to understand what a production boom could mean for the climate, two new pieces of research appear to come to opposite conclusions.

What is the climate impact of shale gas?

Since gas has about half the emissions of coal when it's burned for electricity, it has been touted as  a 'bridging fuel' for countries seeking to decarbonise their economies to use as a stop gap on the way to a low carbon electricity system.

But as we've  explored before, scientists are struggling to establish the full impact of increased shale gas production on the climate, due to methane that escapes during the extraction process - known as fugitive methane emissions.

Two papers released this month examine what the actual climate impact of natural gas is. At first glance they seem to show opposite things. The graph on the left, taken from a paper by Robert Howarth appears to show natural gas electricity generation emissions - the towering left bar - can be much higher than coal's. The second graph, from  Heath et al, appears to show the opposite - that coal's generation emissions (on the left) are much higher than those from both conventional and shale gas.

Howarth Vs Heath Coal And Gas Emissions

Both papers examine the 'lifecycle emissions' of the fuels: the amount of gas emitted from extraction to combustion. So why is there such a large discrepancy between two papers?

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UK and Germany top ‘dirty 30’ league of coal plants

  • 22 Jul 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Gareth Davies

The UK and Germany are ranked joint first  - or last, depending on your perspective - in a new league table of Europe's 30 most polluting coal-fired power stations.

The ranking comes from several NGOs including WWF and the European Environmental Bureau. They're using it to argue for specific anti-coal policies, saying Europe won't meet its climate targets without them.

We take a look at what they want, and why.

Europe's biggest emitters

The NGOs have listed the EU's top 30 emitters of carbon dioxide in 2013, dubbing the contenders the "dirty 30". All of them are coal-fired power stations.

The UK and Germany both have nine coal plants on the list, putting them joint top of the league table. If you count up the emissions for each country, however, Germany comes out top because its coal plants are generally larger than the UK's and burn more coal.

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Factcheck: Do climate worriers use more electricity?

  • 18 Jul 2014, 11:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Jon Mould

The Telegraph and the Mail say people concerned about climate change use more electricity than those who think the issue is too distant to worry about, according to new research.

The Telegraph quotes Conservative MP Peter Lilley:

"The survey exposes the hypocrisy of many who claim to be 'green': the greater the concern people express about global warming the less they do to reduce their energy usage."

But Lilley's strong conclusions are not supported by the study in question, which comes with some significant caveats. The researchers themselves say there's no significant effect of people's beliefs:

"None of the stated attitudes about environmental or climate change had any significant  impact on overall energy use when household age was taken into account."

Let's take a look at what the study says, and what it doesn't.

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Factcheck: How often do wind turbines catch fire? And does it matter?

  • 17 Jul 2014, 15:15
  • Mat Hope and Simon Evans

CC2.0 Washington DNR

Wind turbines are essentially small buckets of lubricating oil on top of a large metal stick, with rotating wings attached. Add a strike of lightning, a short circuit or a mechanical fault and they occasionally set alight. While that might make a good photo, no one's sure how big a problem it is. A new report tries to work it out.

The research by a group of academics from the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London for the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS) tries to assess how common wind turbine fires are and how dangerous they might be. But the researchers ran into a problem: there's not much data available.

Fire data

When looking for data on wind turbine fires, the researchers found many "sources of information are incomplete, biased, or contain non-publically available data". So it's hard to reliably assess the extent of the problem.

Nonetheless, the researchers give it a go using data from the - admittedly fairly biased - Caithness Windfarm Information Forum (CWIF). That's an anti-windfarm campaign group,  so you can be sure they've done their best to record as many and as serious accidents as possible.

The CWIF recorded a total of 1,328 accidents involving wind turbines between 1995 and 2012. Of those, 200 involved fire. There have been no recorded fatalities and four recorded injuries from wind turbine fires, the IAFSS report says.

That's 11.7 fires per year on average, or nearly one a month, the research points out.

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The future of coal in China, India, Australia, the US, EU, and UK

  • 16 Jul 2014, 13:00
  • Mat Hope

CC: Bobak

Have reports of coal's demise been greatly exaggerated? It depends which part of the world you look at.

Global coal use has grown significantly over the last decade, with global demand increasing 60 per cent between 1990 and 2011, according to research body the International Energy Agency (IEA). With some countries implementing climate policies to limit the use of polluting fuels, some commentators are predicting  coal's imminent demise.

Bp Global Coal Consumption

Source:  BP Statistical Review of World Energy

That's probably premature. While some European countries are ramping up renewables, shutting coal plants and closing mines, other parts of the world are planning an extraction frenzy to feed emerging economies' seemingly insatiable energy demand.

Here's a quick guide to coal's prospects around the world.

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Mind the gap: the holes in UK climate policy

  • 15 Jul 2014, 11:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 raghavvidya

The UK will miss its legally-binding carbon budgets in future without new policies, according to the government's Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The UK's first ever carbon budget running from 2008 to 2012 was met, the CCC says in its latest Progress Report, and there has been good progress on car fuel efficiency, installing more efficient boilers and building wind turbines. But that's about where the good news for government ends.

The first budget was met largely because of the 2008 economic crisis slashing industrial output and ripping a hole in consumers' pockets, the CCC says. Lower output and lower demand reduced the need to burn fossil fuels in power stations, cars and boilers.

Without the impact of the crash and a particularly cold winter in 2010, emissions would have fallen by around 1 per cent per year between 2007 and 2012. To meet the fourth carbon budget in 2027 that rate will need to triple.

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Funding boost nudges UK carbon capture and storage industry forwards

  • 09 Jul 2014, 11:25
  • Mat Hope

White Rose

The world uses a lot of fossil fuels - and there's plenty left to burn, if we want to - with all of the world's major economies still relying on coal, oil, and gas to provide most of their power. But the more countries burn, the more difficult it becomes to constrain global warming.

The trouble is, it's difficult to quickly swap a fossil fuel based energy system for one that's low-carbon. It takes considerable time and money to replace coal and gas with nuclear and renewables.

There is a technology that promises to allow continued fossil fuel use while providing emissions cuts, however - carbon capture and storage (CCS). In theory, CCS technology can capture emissions from fossil fuel power plants and lock them underground. That could allow power plants to burn fossil fuels with a fraction of the emissions.

For energy companies and governments wanting to tackle climate change, that's good news. But the bad news is that CCS has so far struggled to get off the ground, and is yet to be proven in a full scale power plant.

After nearly a decade of false starts, the UK's CCS industry is slowly getting moving. Earlier this year, the government allocated  £100 million to two new demonstration projects. Today, the European Union awarded one of those projects  €300 million for its next phase of development. After a long series of disappointments, the industry is hoping all the pieces are in place to make CCS a success.

Potential

It's increasingly likely that the world will need carbon capture and storage in a big way if it's going to reduce emissions quickly.

Research by thinktank Carbon Tracker suggests countries have already used about two-thirds of the fossil fuel allowance that will give a good chance of preventing more than two degrees of global temperature rise. That leaves a lot more coal, gas and oil in the ground than Carbon Tracker says can be burned.

 

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What the fossil fuel industry thinks of the 'carbon bubble'

  • 09 Jul 2014, 10:40
  • Mat Hope

Carbon Tracker

What does the fossil fuel industry make of the argument that it won't be allowed to burn its main product?

In 2011, campaign group Carbon Tracker warned that large portions of fossil fuel companies' assets are "unburnable" if the world intends to limit global warming to no more than two degrees.

If energy companies can't burn their reserves, they're overvalued, the group argues, in an analysis aimed squarely at the world's financial markets.

In the intervening years, the argument has gained some traction, including in key financial industry publications like the  Financial Times and  The Economist. But what do the fossil fuel companies themselves think?

While we weren't particularly optimistic that they'd want to talk about it, we asked oil, gas and coal companies for their take on the carbon bubble research. Many didn't respond. But some of the bigger companies did, acknowledging that while strong climate action could affect their activities, none of them considered it a threat to their business this century.

Responses

We contacted  76 oil, gas and coal companies, drawn from the main trade groups. Seven companies provided substantial responses. 58 companies didn't respond. We got no response from the coal industry.

Of the substantial responses, six came from major oil companies on the Fortune 500 list of the world's largest businesses, and followed a similar formula.

BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, and MOL all acknowledged climate change was real, and that climate policy posed a risk to their businesses - to an extent. They agreed that regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions should become more stringent over time, and probably will.

But none of the companies we asked saw climate action as a threat to their business in the coming decades - or if they did, they weren't prepared to share that assessment with us.

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The verdict on smart meter privacy, security and health concerns as UK smart meter rollout begins

  • 08 Jul 2014, 10:00
  • Ros Donald

Adapted from a blog originally posted in June 2012

Will the UK government's planned rollout of smart meters leave homes vulnerable to marketing companies desperate for us to overshare information about our most personal habits? Will an information grid linked to energy delivery systems be open to hackers, leaving whole districts vulnerable to disruption? Will smart meters really create a "spy in every home", as the Daily Mail has reported? We take a look at the risks.

Smart meters give people detailed information about how much energy they use and when. The theory is that this can help reduce bills, and level out peak-time stresses on the grid. As such, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is promoting smart meters as a tool for helping the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and plans to ensure one is installed in every home starting this week.

Privacy: will my smart meter be able to track what I do at home?

The short answer is yes - as long as you're using electricity. Energy meters show which appliances use the most electricity so that you can plan energy use effectively. Because of the different ways that appliances use electricity, such data could, for example, reveal whether you use medical devices or baby monitors, or even show the TV programme you're watching. And obviously, it can give information on when you're in or out, or track when you toilet light goes on. So, technically, it might know when you are on the loo.

The Mail reported that this information will be "will be collected every 30 minutes and beamed from a box in the home to the central databases." Some groups are worried about this. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which tracks privacy issues in Europe, produced a report last week warning that smart meter rollout will " enable massive collection of personal data which can track what members of a household do". EDPS is concerned that patterns and profiles could be mined for marketing and advertising, or price discrimination, and is asking the European Commission to consider legislating to protect consumers.

It does sound pretty alarming. However, the government appears to have taken some of these worries to heart already, outlining plans in April designed to ensure consumers have control over how much data they share with suppliers and third parties. 

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