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The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The budget confirmed the acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change‘s recommendation for carbon emissions in 2020. The UK will have to reduce its CO2 output by about 110m tonnes by 2020, equivalent to a 21% reduction on actual emissions in 2005 (and 34% on the 1990 figure). The proposed rate of emissions reduction is far faster than the UK has achieved thus far and the chancellor’s budget shows the government has started to recognise the scale of the challenge.

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The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

E.ON’s £1bn plan for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is waiting for approval from the UK government. Other generators have shifted away from coal. Drax, which owns by far the largest coal power station in the UK, is investing in biomass. Other companies have focused on new gas plants. Why is the world’s largest investor-owned utility pushing ahead with a project to burn coal without carbon capture?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that burning coal to generate electricity is extremely profitable. Very low prices for emissions permits and tumbling coal costs mean that a profit-seeking management team is highly incentivised to try to push for permission to use coal in power stations. This article provides the background calculations for an estimate that the new Kingsnorth will generate an operating profit of about £300m a year if current fuel and carbon prices persist. Additionally, it also tries to show that the cost of fitting CCS equipment and running the plant to capture the large majority of all carbon emissions is likely to add no more than about 1.5p per kilowatt hour to the cost of generating electricity at current coal and carbon prices. This means that a new coal fired power station with CCS may have operating costs only marginally above gas power plants

Nevertheless, E.ON has just asked for government subsidy to install CCS at Kingsnorth from day one. The purpose of this article is to offer an estimate of the maximum the government ought to offer E.ON in order to get it to invest in CCS prior to opening the new power station.

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The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives will be the first country to be overwhelmed by the effect of climate change. The republic is a collection of coral atolls with maximum heights of one or two metres above sea level. Climate change is increasing worldwide sea levels and the atolls will probably go underwater by the end of the century.

The 300,000-400,000 people who live on the Maldives are not responsible for global warming. Their emissions per head (even including aviation fuels for incoming international tourism) are less than a seventh of typical European levels.

Many countries have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The government of the Maldives seeks to encourage this trend by going one step further with a plan for near carbon neutrality within ten years.

This is an immensely challenging target. Chris Goodall (author of this blog) and Mark Lynas, the prize-winning climate change author, were asked to provide a short outline of how it might be achieved and what it might cost.[1]

In the rest of this note, we show our calculations. We will be the first to acknowledge that this work is incomplete. Although it was tempting to conduct fieldwork in some of the most attractive island resorts, we did our analysis using publicly available information and with help from officials attached to the Maldives government.

Our work shows that near neutrality is possible, but expensive. It will take at least $1.1bn for this small island state. The Maldives imports almost all its fuels in the form of refined oil products. Rates of financial return to the investment therefore depend largely on the price of oil. If expectations of future oil prices exceed $100 a barrel, we judge that the plan is sufficiently attractive to be financeable by international institutions such as the World Bank.

Comments on this work will be very gratefully received.

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Power Station 571 aka the solar panels on my roof.

Power Station 571 aka the solar panels on my roof.

People like me who buy solar panels tend to become unreasonably fond of them. Many homeowners come to regard these silent blocks of silicon on our roofs as part of the family. I’m also particularly proud that our panels are registered at Ofgem, the utilities regulator, as Power Station 571. The reason for going through the cumbersome process to convince Ofgem that my silicon should be listed alongside Drax and Sizewell B was to benefit from the government incentive scheme for renewable electricity generation.

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Photograph: Christopher Whalen.

Photograph: Christopher Whalen.

George Monbiot rightly observes that the earth’s resources of biomass are limited and cannot be simultaneously claimed for multiple uses: liquid biofuels, fuel for heating, biogas, and biochar. This presentation (available for download in PowerPoint or PDF) looks at the globe’s land and biomass production to assess how much space can be given over to non-food uses and how much energy this can generate. This is one of the crucial questions facing the world: how much energy can we use from biomass before this affects the ability of the world to provide enough food for nearly 7bn people, rising to at least 9bn by 2050?

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Why is humanity finding it difficult to take action on climate change?
Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that included promises to pursue aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. Broadly speaking, the reality has not matched the promises made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Politicians may intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Photograph: Christopher Thomond. Source: Guardian.


The new Conservative policy document on energy is keen to emphasise how smart it is. At its core are proposals for smart meters, smart grids, and smart battery charging. The enthusiasm for these technologies is almost palpable. On one page, the word ‘smart’ occurs eight times. But readers of the policy proposals are largely left in the dark about what all these intelligent devices will do. David Cameron’s comments about building ‘an electricity internet’ didn’t shed much light either.

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Vattenfall CCS power station

The Vattenfall CCS power station under construction at Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. The main power station can be seen in the background. Image credit: Vattenfall AB.


A powerful US coalition of large industrial companies, power producers, and environmental defence organisations has produced the first sensible plan for incentivising the early introduction of carbon capture at solid fuel electricity plants. The scheme proposed by the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) addresses the most important environmental issue in the world – the burning of coal to generate electricity – in a plausible and coherent way. Coal, which is almost exclusively burnt in power stations or in steel-making, is responsible for about 36% of US emissions. If we can find a way of cheaply capturing the CO2 from power stations and storing it underground, we can then also provide the technology to Chinese and Indian generators.

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Copyright: Michalis Palis - Fotolia.com
Copyright: Michalis Palis – Fotolia.com


Government officials are searching for policies that will meet the twin aims of providing jobs and meeting the UK’s climate change targets. It is proving a difficult task. The easiest ways of reducing fossil fuel use will probably not create many new jobs in the UK. All large wind turbines are built abroad and although the construction work on a nuclear power station will generate a few thousand jobs, most of the key components will need to come from Europe and Japan. So where are the opportunities? I think two major areas stand out as excellent ways of generating jobs quickly without also dragging in expensive imports or sharply raising prices.

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