Back to black: return to coal power

The Government will today anger environmentalists by signalling its support for a controversial new generation of coal-fired power stations and warning that Britain needs to burn more fossil fuels to prevent power cuts.

John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Business, will say that "clean coal" has a crucial role to play in filling Britain's energy gap for the future. He will accuse the green lobby of "gesture politics" by opposing any coal-fired plants, putting energy supplies at risk and presenting a false "black and white" choice to the public over coal.

Mr Hutton, the cabinet minister responsible for energy, will speak about the future of coal for the first time at a speech to the free market Adam Smith Institute in London.

But his speech is bound to raise questions about government environmental policy just two days before the the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, tries to reassure the green lobby by raising taxes on gas-guzzling vehicles.

Mr Hutton's remarks will be seen as a clear sign that the Government will approve plans to build Britain's first coal-fired power station since 1984 at Kingsnorth, Kent.

Green campaigners view the £1bn proposal as a vital test of the Government's commitment to the environment. The energy company E.ON UK wants to demolish an outdated plant and replace it with two units using cleaner coal to supply 1.5 million homes by 2012.

The firm claimed it would cut carbon emissions by nearly two million tones a year and could be a ground-breaking "clean coal" plant, with the carbon emitted stored under the North Sea.

Critics are worried the new technology remains unproved and a new coal programme would undermine efforts to secure a new worldwide agreement to combat global warming.

A further seven coal-fired plants are in the pipeline if, as expected, ministers give the go-ahead to Kingsnorth. Other possible sites include Blyth, Northumberland; Tilbury, Essex; Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire; High Marnham, Nottinghamshire; Longannet, Fife and Cockenzie, East Lothian.

Ministers insisted they recognised the environmental concerns, claiming Britain was taking a global lead on clean coal power generation. They argued the Government could not afford to play fast and loose with energy supplies and must ensure "the lights stay on". Mr Hutton will tell the Government's critics that its commitment to "decarbonise" Britain's electricity mix by the middle of the century remains "non-negotiable".

"But over this period, as we develop low-carbon technologies, we should be under no illusion – generation from fossil fuels will continue to play a key role," he will add.

Mr Hutton will say that nuclear and renewable sources jointly account for just over 20 per cent of UK electricity at present. By 2020, the nation may need to secure about 15 per cent of the total from renewables in order to meet its EU target. A new generation of nuclear plants might maintain or increase the nuclear contribution. But that would still leave a significant proportion of electricity, and the majority of overall energy, coming from fossil fuels, he will argue.

Mr Hutton will declare: "As a country we have to accept the reality that, even in meeting our EU 2020 renewables target, fossil fuels will still play a major part for the next couple of decades at the very least. And there is nothing wrong with that – provided we are meeting our international obligations to reduce our carbon emissions.

"For critics, there's a belief that coal-fired power stations undermine the UK's leadership position on climate change. In fact the opposite is true. Developing economies need to be able to see by the actions that we are taking that it is possible to use indigenous energy reserves and decarbonise your economy.

"Leadership isn't about forcing people into making binary choices. Low carbon energy production or fossil fuels, particularly when the primary goal – substantial emission reductions – can be achieved without having to make binary choices in the short term. The world will use a mix of energy sources for the foreseeable future. Our leadership role is best promoted by the actions we take on capping emissions, carbon pricing and supporting the development of new CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology. Not by gesture politics that could put our future energy security at risk."

Environmental groups last night denied that they would be playing "gesture politics". Russell Marsh, director of policy at the Green Alliance, said: "The reason UK emissions have risen for the past 10 years is because we have increased our reliance on coal-fired generation. The Government cannot expect to meet its legally binding targets, soon to be imposed through the Climate Change Bill, if it sanctions a new fleet of unabated coal-fired power stations."

Mr Marsh said that this week's Budget could only be viewed as "tinkering" on green issues if the Government went ahead with an expansion of both aviation and coal.

The minister will argue that fossil fuels will also play an important role in ensuring the flexibility of the electricity generation system for which demand fluctuates, particularly in winter. Neither wind nor nuclear power could fulfil this role, so back-up from fossil fuels will be needed, with coal seen as the most reliable source.

Although gas is cleaner than coal, Mr Hutton will warn that an over-reliance on gas would leave us more exposed to the international gas market as Britain's own resources decline.

Within seven years one of the world's first commercial-scale clean coal demonstrator plants could be up and running in the UK, generating electricity from coal with up to 90 per cent less carbon emitted.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Key Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A really exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Trade Operative

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An established, family owned de...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen for a Customer ...

Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project