Environmental law charity ClientEarth has submitted a written objection to Drax Power’s plans to build four new gas turbines.
If approved the plant will risk locking in high-carbon energy on the grid until 2050.
ClientEarth’s intervention comes just weeks after the historic report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailed the drastic carbon emission reductions needed to ensure the planet keeps global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
ClientEarth climate accountability lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “The UK government claims to be a climate leader, yet if major energy projects such as this from Drax are granted planning consent, the UK will risk carbon lock-in that would seriously undermine its ability to meet its climate change commitments.
“The government’s own forecasts published this year show that the UK does not need a major roll out of new large-scale gas generation capacity.
"There is evidence that even those low forecasts overestimate the level of need and are also not sufficient to meet the UK’s decarbonisation targets.
“Approving this new gas capacity risks either throwing the UK’s decarbonisation off course, or locking in redundant infrastructure resulting in significant environmental impacts and costs to the taxpayer.”
Drax’s plans to convert two coal-fired units at its Selby power plant in North Yorkshire, to four combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT), will nearly treble the units’ generation capacity and could lead to a significant increase in their greenhouse gas emissions.
The government estimates the UK will need 6GW of new gas generation through to 2035. However the UK has already greenlit more than 15GW worth of large-scale gas plants. Approving Drax’s project would take this to 18GW – three times the government’s estimates.
With the UK’s coal phase-out planned for 2025, the coal-fired units stand to be decommissioned if the proposed gas conversion does not take place.
The proposed gas conversion therefore threatens to displace low-carbon energy that could otherwise replace the units’ generation capacity once they are retired. This is supported by analysis from energy policy experts Sandbag as well as the government’s own projections.
Hunter Jones added: “The only way this project can survive the future is with carbon capture and storage – a technology that is not economically viable and one not expected to be soon enough to meet the UK’s carbon targets, if at all.
"The IPCC’s recent report comes as a serious warning about the need to decarbonise as fast as possible to avoid catastrophic global warming impacts."
Hunter Jones concluded: “The government needs to base its plans on the future not the past. With the cost of renewables and other smart technologies dropping year on year, approving a fleet of large-scale gas plants makes no economic sense.”
The new gas turbines at Drax would have an operational life of 25 years. However the government’s own climate body, the Committee on Climate Change, has warned there should be no more gas on the UK grid by 2030, without carbon capture and storage (CCS) – an economically unviable technology BEIS expects not to be used commercially before 2035.
Drax’s proposal is considered a nationally significant infrastructure project under the 2008 Planning Act. As such the plan must comply with the relevant national policy statements and the requirement in the Act that a project’s “impacts must not outweigh its benefits”.
The policy statements warn specifically against the risk of carbon lock-in from projects such as Drax’s in view of the UK’s long-term decarbonisation targets.
Andy Koss, chief executive of Drax Power, told The Ecologist: “Our Repower project will deliver cost effective, high efficiency, flexible gas power to the grid.
"By reusing some of our existing infrastructure, including the grid connection and cooling towers, the development will be cost effective and very competitive.
"It could also enable us to stop using coal as soon as 2023, well ahead of the government’s 2025 deadline, reducing our emissions whilst playing a vital role in supporting the system as more renewables come online."
He continued: “The IPCC’s recent report stated that in order to meet our climate targets, up to 85 percent of power generation will need to come from renewables, by 2050.
"This means the remainder will need to be provided by other flexible, lower carbon technologies which are able to balance the system and keep the lights on.
"The Committee on Climate Change has also said there will be a need for flexible gas plants, in order to meet the generation gap in the 2020s – and recent analysis by Imperial College London for Electric Insights recognised the vital role of flexible power generation, like gas, in controlling the costs of supporting the system as more renewables come online.”
Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from ClientEarth.