Yesterday the Government's pollution regulator told the two main generators, National Power and PowerGen, that it was seeking drastic curbs in air pollution from each of their main coal-burning power stations by 2001.
Expensive pollution control equipment needs to be fitted at these plants to meet the higher state-of-the-art environmental standards which Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution wishes to see applied.
The generators might find it cheaper to switch even more to using imports of low-sulphur foreign coal than they anticipate, or close even more of their coal-fired power stations and build more gas-fuelled capacity.
The industry has long known that Britain's emissions of sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen - the two main causes of acid rain - would have to be curbed. Coal-fired power stations produce more than half of this pollution. EC directives and international treaties have obliged the industry to accept a timetable for reductions.
But until now, PowerGen and National Power have been working on the principle that they would have to curb their emissions as a whole. Their understanding was that a significant number of 'dirty' coal-fired power stations could remain open as long as others were closed or had the expensive pollution abatement equipment fitted. Total emissions would, therefore, come down while retaining a market for tens of millions of tonnes of coal a year.
But yesterday the pollution inspectorate told the two generators it wanted them to come up with a programme for fitting all of their large 'base-load' power stations with state-of-the-art pollution equipment by 2001.
If that happened it would make UK coal even less viable and gas and low-coal imports more attractive.
Since it takes several years to install this equipment, the decision point is now only a few years off. The generators are expected to argue that they should be allowed to carry on with their present approach, burning coal in several large, unmodified power stations, fitting the pollution abatement equipment at a few while bringing down total emissions.
The inspectorate will point out the known environmental damage these power stations are doing to wildlife, vegetation and buildings nearby through their contribution to acid rain. The Government will then have to arbitrate.
The inspectorate asked the generators to draw up their programme for the coal-fired power stations at the same time as issuing the licences PowerGen and National Power need to pollute under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
These licences allow the generators, which serve England and Wales, to produce a maximum of nearly 800,000 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen and 1.9 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide in the year beginning now, with individual limits for each of their 27 oil and coal-fired power stations. They face heavy fines if they breach the terms of these licences, known as authorisations.
Neither company would comment about the implications for the future, but both said they were confident they could comply with year's authorisation.
Both the environmental group Friends of the Earth and power industry insiders said that the pollution inspectorate's request for state-of-the-art equipment on all the principal coal- fired power stations by 2001 was an important development.
Friends of the Earth welcomed the thinking behind the new regime, but said the limits were set too high: 'They will condemn vast tracts of the countryside to damage by acid rain for decades to come.' it said.Reuse content