Coal ‘comeback’ could threaten carbon emissions progress

Great Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation have risen by 15% after rising gas prices led to a switch back towards coal in recent weeks, according to researchers.

The cost of gas has reached a ten-year high, prompting power station operators to use coal-fired plant instead of lower-carbon gas plants according to research for the Electric Insights report carried out by Imperial College, London.

The amount of electricity generated by burning coal fell to a record low of 200MW during June and July, but then doubled in August and reached 2GW during the first week in September. Coal-fired generation hasn’t hit that level since March, when the “Beast from the East” storm hit Europe.

1,000 extra tones of CO2 per hour

Iain Staffell, Lecturer in Sustainable Energy Systems at Imperial College London, said: “With these coal power stations running instead of more efficient gas plants, Britain is producing an extra 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) every hour.

“These coal plants are not running solely because they are needed to meet peak demand, but because gas prices have risen sharply and carbon prices have not kept up, making coal power stations more economic to run than gas-fired ones.”

Carbon prices currently double the cost of burning coal, but gas is currently still more expensive.

The cost of emitting CO2 has risen by 45% so far this year due to an ongoing rally in European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) prices, yet wholesale gas costs are also up 40% over the same period.

‘Not there yet’

Andy Koss, Chief Executive at power station operator Drax Group, which commissioned Staffell to write the Electricity Insights report, said: “The carbon price has been the driving force behind Britain’s decarbonisation.

“This analysis shows that even with the carbon price, market conditions can be such that coal power can have a resurgence.

“The UK is getting closer to removing coal from the power system by 2025, but we’re not there yet.”

> Read Drax's announcement