Analysis

US emissions increase hints at limitations of Obama’s clean power plan

  • 22 Oct 2014, 17:10
  • Mat Hope

President Obama | Shutterstock

US energy sector emissions increased slightly in 2013, according to new data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This may seem like bad news for President Obama, who has pledged to cut the country's emissions 17 per cent by 2020.

Obama unveiled his  clean power plan earlier this year to much fanfare. The centrepiece of the plan is to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 30 per cent by 2020.

The US's rising energy sector emissions seem to  suggest the policy may not be as effective as Obama hopes.

Obama's clean power plan specifically targets emissions from power generation, which accounts for   about 32 per cent of the US's total emissions. Cutting emissions from the US's homes and businesses is a much smaller part of his wider   Climate Action Plan.

The EIA's data shows the potential limitations of focusing on cutting power generation emissions without addressing the country's broader energy consumption.

Emissions increase

US energy sector emissions increased 2.5 per cent in 2013 compared to year before, the EIA's data shows. The EIA says the main reason for the increase was colder weather.

Winter temperatures at the start of 2013 were lower than a year before, and the US also experienced a particularly mild spring last year. Temperatures fell again later in the year, when the US was  engulfed by the polar vortex.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 16.15.40.png
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average monthly temperatures. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Households and businesses turned up their thermostats in response to the lower temperatures, which meant burning a lot more gas and a bit more oil. The residential sector was responsible for 48 per cent of 2013's emissions increase, mostly due to heat demand, the EIA says.

Read more

How National Grid keeps the lights on when a large power station catches fire

  • 20 Oct 2014, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

Didcot power station | Andrew Smith

What happens when a major gas power station catches on fire? Well,  it certainly looks spectacular. But it appears the short term impact on the UK's power generation is pretty minimal.

Energy company RWE npower had to  unexpectedly shut down one of the Dicot B power station's 700 megawatt units last night after a fire broke out in one of the cooling towers.

Didcot's shutdown is the latest in a series of unexpected outages which National Grid has had to cope with in recent months. This has led to a  spate of headlines questioning whether National Grid will have enough power stations available to cope with high demand over the winter months.

We take a look at how National Grid copes with such unexpected events, and why it remains confident the UK will have enough power this winter.

Where does the UK's power come from?

National Grid is legally required to make sure there's always enough power to meet demand. The UK's peak demand - at around 6pm on weekdays - is currently around 45 gigawatts. This is expected to rise to about  55 gigawatts over the winter, as people spend more time indoors and use more electricity.

Big coal, gas, and nuclear power stations are responsible for meeting most of this demand. The government's  latest statistics show 30 per cent of the UK's electricity comes from gas, with 28 per cent coming from coal. Nuclear power provides about 20 per cent.

Read more

Analysis: Who wants what from the EU 2030 climate framework

  • 17 Oct 2014, 12:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Number 10

Ambitious EU 2030 climate targets could be crucial to unlocking a global climate deal in Paris next year. Yet EU leaders still can't agree the details, with just days to go.

Uncertainty remains because different EU member states want different things from the 2030 policy framework, which will set the trajectory for EU climate and energy policy for the next 15 years. Some countries want three targets - to cut emissions, increase use of renewable energy and boost take up of energy efficiency. Others want an emissions target only. And a few say they will only accept targets with sweeteners.

So who wants what from the EU 2030 climate framework, and what does that mean for how ambitious it will be?

Read more

Factcheck: Daily Express claims windfarms will add £1,000 to household bills

  • 15 Oct 2014, 16:00
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

Utility bill | Shutterstock

Wind farms will be responsible for adding £1,000 to household energy bills, the Daily Express's frontpage today claims.

The figure is based on a submission by campaign group the Scientific Alliance to the House of Lords Science and Technology committee. The committee is exploring different ways the UK can cut energy sector emissions while making sure the lights stay on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 13.58.14.png

But the alliance takes an outdated approach to calculating how many power stations the UK needs, leading it to come up with numbers that are significantly out of step with other experts.

Read more

Owen Paterson’s objections to the Climate Change Act: some context

  • 13 Oct 2014, 15:00
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

Wind & coal | Shutterstock

Former environment minister Owen Paterson has been in the papers over the weekend. In an article on the front page of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph he says we won't be able to keep the UK's lights on unless we scrap the Climate Change Act. This is a law requiring the government to cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, which he himself voted for.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 12.45.06.png

Paterson is due to give a lecture to climate sceptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation on Wednesday, where he will expand on this theme. In advance of his talk we've taken a look at what he has to say.

Read more

How much of China's carbon dioxide emissions is the rest of the world responsible for?

  • 09 Oct 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

China smog | Shutterstock

China is the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, by far. The country produces more than a quarter of the planet's annual greenhouse gas emissions.

World leaders increasingly reference China's spiralling emissions as a reason why it should commit to dealing with climate change.

But is it fair to ask China to lead the way? After all, a hefty share of the pollution rising out of China's smokestacks comes from factories churning out TVs, mobile phones and cheap toys for the rest of the world.

China's emissions

In 2006, China became the  world's largest emitter, overtaking the US. By 2013, 28 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions came from China, according to data from the Global Carbon Project.

This graph shows the dramatic step change in the growth of China's carbon dioxide emissions that's taken place in the last 15 years:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 15.09.41.png
Source: Data from the Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Atlas. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Read more

Three charts that show how efficiency has saved a continent’s worth of energy

  • 08 Oct 2014, 15:30
  • Simon Evans

Facade windows | Shutterstock

Energy efficiency has saved more energy than is used by the EU, China or the US according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). It is an "invisible powerhouse" for the global economy, improving energy security, reducing bills and making it easier to avoid dangerous climate change, says IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven.

The IEA was singing the praises of energy efficiency a month ago but governments seem to be failing to embrace its full potential. Its latest publication takes a more optimistic view of recent progress.

So how much has efficiency achieved since the turn of the century?

Continent-scale energy saving

The most arresting comparison made by the IEA report is that efficiency efforts in the decade to 2011 saved more energy (the large light blue bar on the chart below) than a year's worth of consumption in the US, China or EU (the dark blue bars).

IEA EE Chart

Read more

Why the European Commission approved the UK’s plans for a new nuclear plant

  • 08 Oct 2014, 12:50
  • Mat Hope

Shutterstock | Sizewell nuclear

The European Commission today gave the go-ahead for the UK government to subsidise the building of two new nuclear reactors. The decision is something of a U-turn for the commission, which outlined a range of objections to the deal late last year.

The UK government last October signed a deal with energy company EDF to build the first new nuclear power plant in the UK for 20 years, worth between £16 billion and £24.5 billion. The government agreed to pay a guaranteed price for the plant's electricity and underwrite the loans needed to get construction started.

The European Commission was called in to check the deal didn't  contravene EU laws designed to avoid governments giving unfair support to particular industries. Last December, the commission published a  long list of objections to the deal. But today it has decided the deal can go ahead after all.

So why the change of heart?

Clawing back profits

It's hard to know exactly what went on  behind the scenes over the last 10 months, but the commission claims two changes to the Hinkley deal were enough to get it to change its mind.

The commission originally said the UK government hadn't forced EDF to agree to pay enough money back if the Hinkley plant was more profitable than expected. The government agreed to tweak the agreement  earlier this month, and seems to have won the commission round.

The commission was unhappy with how the government and EDF initially agreed to split the profits from the plant once it was up and running, called a 'gain share mechanism'.

Read more

Is burning wood for energy worse for the climate than coal?

  • 07 Oct 2014, 16:50
  • Simon Evans

Drax Power

An article in today's Daily Mail says it is "lunacy" to run Drax power station on biomass instead of coal. Converting the plant to burn wood destroys forests and emits more carbon, it says. The paper calls this a "living, humming, forest-destroying symbol of the shameful absurdity of European energy policies".

Drax and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) do not agree. DECC is giving money to conversions at Drax and other power plants because they are helping the UK meet an EU target to get 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

DECC says this will cut carbon too, if the right kind of biomass is used. But what does the right kind of biomass look like? Let's try to unpack things a little.

Read more

Has DECC signed a dud deal for renewables?

  • 03 Oct 2014, 10:05
  • Simon Evans

Business contract | Shutterstock

Contracts for renewable electricity signed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in May were poor value for taxpayers, according to an influential committee of MPs.

The contracts, worth up to £16.6 billion over their lifetime, were awarded in May to eight projects including five offshore windfarms and three plants that will burn wood to generate power. The National Audit Office published a report on the deals in June that made very similar complaints to the MPs.

So why are the contracts being criticised?

Regime change

The government is introducing a new subsidy scheme for low carbon energy starting in April 2015, called contracts for difference (CfDs). DECC decided to sign early CfDs with these eight large projects because it was worried there would otherwise be a gap in investment as we change over from the previous subsidy regime.

It's these early contracts that the NAO and MPs on the Public Accounts Committee are unhappy about. Both are unconvinced that an investment hiatus would really have materialised.

Read more