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.

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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.

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Conservative conference keeps quiet on climate change

  • 01 Oct 2014, 17:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 mrgarethm

Climate change doesn't appear to be part of the Conservative Party's electoral strategy. At its annual conference in Birmingham this week it has seemed a case of the less said on the subject, the better.

The Tories' internal contradictions on climate are no secret. The likes of former environment secretary Owen Paterson have loudly opposed efforts to tackle emissions, while Tory heavyweights like Lord Deben and Michael Howard are firm advocates of action.

These contradictions have left some commentators asking who really speaks for the Conservatives on climate change.

Is it David Cameron who last week called climate change "one of the most serious threats facing our world" and told the conference the UK was leading on climate? Or George Osborne, whose conference speech  avoided the subject?

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Low-frequency noise study did not test for hearing damage or windfarm impacts

  • 01 Oct 2014, 13:45
  • Simon Evans

Wind turbines | Shutterstock

Living close to a windfarm could damage your hearing, according to articles in today's Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail and Express.

The Express said "Turbine buzz 'is deafening'" and said scientists were warning that noise from windfarms might lead to deafness. The Telegraph took a similar line, beginning "Living close to wind farms may lead to severe hearing damage or even deafness".

However, the research involved did not measure deafness, did not mimic wind turbines and did not show that windfarms cause hearing damage, according to the lead author of the study.

Drexl says the idea that he had shown wind turbine noise "is deafening" is incorrect.

"It's definitely not what we're saying in the paper. You cannot make this claim. It is not substantiated at the moment because we haven't shown whether low frequency sound is causing any damage to the inner ear. I also don't know of any cases of deafness being reported by people living near wind turbines."

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Shale gas drilling rules to be eased despite overwhelming opposition

  • 26 Sep 2014, 13:45
  • Simon Evans

No trespass | Shutterstock

Fracking firms could benefit by up to £105 million a year from a legal change that is being pushed through despite overwhelming public opposition.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has long had plans to change the law so that drilling for shale gas deep under peoples' properties is no longer considered trespass.

Yesterday DECC said it would go ahead with the change. That's despite the opposition of 99 per cent of the 40,647 people that responded to a public consultation on the plans.

Trespass no more

To extract shale gas from deep under the UK, firms plan to drill into shale rocks and then split them apart with high-pressure water, chemicals and sand. This takes place at depths at least several hundred meters below the surface.

Under current law, drilling fracking wells under peoples' homes constitutes trespass. This would not prevent fracking from taking place. But it would entail a potentially lengthy legal process that would be expected to lead to compensation for landowners. Case law suggests this compensation would be relatively minimal.

The government held a public consultation until mid-August on plans to change the law to speed up the process. It would formalise a standard compensation package for communities affected by drilling.

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UK and Germany balk at coal exit plea

  • 19 Sep 2014, 16:25
  • Simon Evans

Lignite mine | Shutterstock

Earlier this week a major global report explained how the world could tackle climate change while growing the economy, at no extra cost.

One of its top recommendations was for rich countries to get out of coal as quickly as possible. It said these countries should immediately promise to stop building new coal plants and to accelerate the closure of old power stations.

That sounds like a pretty simple ask. So are the EU's major coal users like the UK and Germany up for an accelerated coal phase-out? Not exactly, it turns out.

Cut coal for growth and climate

The coal exit plea comes from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate's New Climate Economy report. The UK government and others set up the commission to investigate whether the global economy could continue to grow while tackling the risks of climate change.

The report finds that most of the emissions cuts required to avoid dangerous warming could be made at no additional cost to the economy, if there is "strong and broad implementation" of its ten point plan. The findings were backed by UK climate secretary Ed Davey.

The report puts special emphasis on reducing coal emissions. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels and is responsible for three-quarters of all power sector emissions despite only providing two-fifths of power. So getting out of coal is an "essential feature" of climate action, the report says, and it is "critical" to limit further coal expansion.

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Scotland decides: What independence could mean for the country’s climate and energy policies

  • 17 Sep 2014, 14:10
  • Simon Evans & Mat Hope

Scotland flag | Shutterstock

Scotland's voters are set to decide whether the country will separate from the rest of the UK.

Here's our guide to what independence might mean for the country's climate and energy policies.

Scotland would get the lion's share of North Sea oil and gas tax revenues, but might have to forego some of it to keep the sector going

One of the  largest economic prizes at stake in the referendum is North Sea oil and gas.

The Scottish government says Scotland would have a right to 90 per cent of future North sea oil and gas tax revenues. The UK government says it's more like  73-88 per cent.

The split largely depends on where the maritime border  would be drawn. The final boundary would have to be negotiated between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 At 11.52.55Source: HM Government " Scotland analysis: Borders and citizenship"

It also depends on how much oil is worth in future and how much it costs to extract. In 2012/13 an 84 per cent share of North sea tax revenues was worth £5.6 billion. But future revenues are  highly uncertain.

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Behind the headlines: Fracking and water contamination

  • 16 Sep 2014, 15:45
  • Simon Evans

Fracking rally | Shutterstock

There are fears that hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas could be behind water contamination in the US. These fears have been a touchstone of anti-fracking protests around the world.

New research that's attracted a lot of media interest today seems to put paid to those concerns, finding faulty well casings are to blame instead.

But depending on which headline you read, you might have come away with a different impression. So what's really going on?

Contradictory coverage

The new study looked at drinking water samples from 133 wells in the Marcellus and Barnett shale areas of the US. The researchers wanted to know why these wells contained higher than usual levels of hydrocarbons like methane. Was the contamination caused by nearby fracking or was it naturally present in the water? 

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Are we about to pay for high-carbon power plants we don’t need?

  • 12 Sep 2014, 15:50
  • Simon Evans

Electric meter dials | Shutterstock

The UK's households could end up paying for expensive new power stations which are not actually needed, according to a committee of MPs.

They are concerned about the government's approach to the UK's shrinking electricity supplies. They say its capacity market plans risk locking in unnecessary high-carbon generation, potentially adding £359 million to energy bills and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

We've delved into the government's historical electricity data to show how the UK's electricity use has changed, why the government thinks a capacity market is needed and why the MPs say it's got things wrong.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 At 15.36.22

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If energy efficiency is so great, why aren’t we doing more of it?

  • 09 Sep 2014, 16:30
  • Simon Evans

Facade insulation | Shutterstock

Forever the Cinderella of climate and energy policy, two reports published this week say we should remember to invite energy efficiency to the ball.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says investing in efficiency can boost growth, jobs, health, government budgets, industrial productivity - and those are just the benefits backed by robust analysis. Meanwhile left-leaning thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says efficiency could reduce EU reliance on Russian gas.

It's an impressive list of benefits. So what's going wrong?

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