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10 October 2019

UK government U-turns on climate and agrees Drax gas turbines

UK business secretary, Andrea Leadsom has ignored both expert and public opinion to overrule a block on the construction of four new gas turbines at the Drax power station.

As the protesters from Extinction Rebellion ramps up its protests just a stones-throw away from Leadsom’s office, the UK Conservative Party seems more out of touch with public opinion on climate change than ever.

Drax is the UK’s largest producer of CO2, and is this plant gets built, will add 3.6 GW of capacity with the new turbines. These will replace coal-fired units at the Yorkshire based facility. With falling stock prices and an end to UK-based subsidies in 2027, Drax’s prior efforts to harness American grown biomass may seem less important now the government has suddenly supported its gas plans.

Drax has attempted to appear green to the public, with biomass and carbon capture at the front of their media strategy, but even the biomass woodchips used in the Drax’s UK plant are processed and imported from America. A 2016 study from the Natural Resource Defence Council has examined the “full system costs” of biomass, with some estimates showing that burning wood can emit up to 40% more carbon to produce the same amount of electricity. These figures will only be worsened by overseas shipping, with the NRDC highlighting the “good economic sense” in shifting to alternatives like wind and solar.

BEIS has attempted to justify its pursuit of gas and as a “reliable” and “important part of the UK energy mix”, with dreams of using carbon-capture-ready technology on the horizon.

This position contradicts previous decisions made by the government to abandon carbon-capture based projects due to high expense. Clearly attuned to the uncertainties surrounding the performance of the technology, which environmentalists point out is decades old, the temptation to include carbon-capture as headline policy, however delusional, is too glamorous to resist.

As we’ve previously reported, carbon capture at the Drax facility have been heralded as a great success, despite only cutting emissions by a measly 10%, and failing to count the cost of carbon used to bring biomass to the country. With this in mind, estimates from environmentalist group ClientEarth suggests that with the new section of the plant, Drax may produce as much as 75% of national emissions from future electricity production. This government seems to be marching on regardless, with carbon capture seen as the ‘perfect’ compromise to satisfy the fossil-fuel community, while appearing ever so green.

The impact of this gas obsession is likely to be far worse than expected, with a recent study from Cornell University demonstrating unreported and unprecedented amounts of methane being released through the fracking process, one of the main ways of extracting the natural gas which will be used in these turbines.

Both the Planning Inspectorate and ClientEarth had previously urged the government to refuse Drax’s proposals, insisting they “undermine the government’s commitment” to net-zero emissions at a time when the UK energy supply is not crying out for more gas.

These groups have highlighted that this addition of more natural gas to the energy mix surpasses the governments stated policy for just 6 GW of gas demand in the 2035 energy mix. With a recent “carbon budget blow-out” facilitated by Leadsom, the reckless greenlighting of projects is likely to take the projected figure to nearly three times this, as the UK veers away from decarbonisation targets.

This overbudgeting for the ‘transition’ to clean energy through gas, poses a significant question of how rapidly net-zero emission targets in the UK will be reached. Either the government has no intentions of removing fossil-fuels from the energy mix any time soon, or it is content to promote high-cost assets which will inevitably become stranded at huge cost to the taxpayer.

The Planning Inspectorate is playing its cards close to its chest prior the 6-week deadline for an appeal, but highlighted the responsibility of the Secretary of State to “consider the recommendation made by the Examining Authority and decide whether or not to grant development consent.”

While America is currently FAR from a role model where climate change is concerned, recent refusals to proposals similar to those made by Drax, have meant natural-gas plants have had to shift to renewable technology rather than adding new fossil fuel facilities. This has been achieved because decision making is shared across state legislature, generating companies and the Federal Energy Regulator, and not overturned on the stroke of the pen of an inexpert, but an elected official.

Projects such as the Mission Rock and Grayson Power Plant in California have been forced by local governing bodies to adopt solar and battery systems, discarding plans to simply replace retired gas turbines with new ones.  This investment in renewables will not only provide clean energy, but also will inevitably yield more to investors. This win-win scenario is a position which seems to be eluding business secretary Leadsom.

Either this decision has come about because the Conservative Party is convinced it knows best or the UK Climate Change Committee which guides the government, is similarly certain that this is the right route. We often point out that only 9% of those who ran for parliament in 2017 had STEM degrees, and a less than a handful of the Climate Change Committee are actually from climate science backgrounds and would ask do they really understand what they are doing?

As demonstrations in London against climate change ramp up and protestors are already gathering outside the Drax facility, Leadsom has to show that at some level at least she is either listening or at least aware of the debate – we would award a “D Minus, must do better”.