This is not a chimney

A Cooling Tower

A Chimney

It looks like a chimney… but it’s not! At a fossil fuel burning power station the chimney looks like this:

So what are these enormous concrete monstrosities? These belching behemoths are cooling towers. In the UK’s creaking, outdated power stations coal is burnt to heat water to steam. The steam is sent through turbines at high speed generating electricity. Once through the turbine a huge amount of energy remains in the hot water. For some reason the geniuses who designed these power plants decided that instead of using this heat for something useful like… er… heating… they would call it ‘waste heat’ and fart it into the sky. Some power stations also fart the heat into rivers killing fish. Great move guys!

Cooling Towers at sunset

The really stupid thing is that this electricity is then transmitted along wires to houses where, yes, you’re not going to believe this; it is used to generate heat in electrical heating devices. This process is massively inefficient. More than 75% of the carbon in those lumps of coal is released into the atmosphere for no good reason at all.

This insanity goes someway to explain why countries like Denmark and Sweden are so much more efficient then the UK. When I was in Copenhagen for COP 15 it was exciting to see a small power station within the city limits. This power station only had a chimney. It didn’t need cooling towers because all the ‘waste’ heat was being piped into the city to keep the homes snug. There are no boilers in homes over there (so no need for a boiler scrappage scheme); just large tanks storing the plentiful hot water. Using the hot water produced from generating electricity to heat neighbourhoods is known as district heating or combined heat and power (CHP). Most exciting of all was the giant company name emblazoned on the side of the building… DONG energy. This is clearly the way to warm a city!

Dong Energy in Copenhagen: no cooling towers

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that the countries that lead the world in energy efficiency are also the countries with the highest levels of equality. Efficiency and equality are two noble steeds drawing civilization forth to a better future.

The flip side to the gross inefficiency that lies at the heart of our green and pleasant land is that enormous efficiency savings and therefore emission reductions are readily available. All the government has to do is legislate to pass an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS) to ensure our electricity supply is subject to similar efficiency rules as everything else in our lives (fridges, cars, homes). Simple, you might think. Well it is, but unfortunately, politicians tend to be the snivelling dishonest type. In their quest to service the needs of big business they fail again to serve their true constituency… the people.

The big 6 energy companies in the UK have a great time enjoying both a deregulated market and historic and ongoing megasubsidies (£1676 million a year since 1990). You would think all this money might be spent on innovation, new technologies or improving service. Unfortunately as with the deregulated rail network we get increasing prices and worse service. Deregulation was supposed to give the consumer more choice but the myth of the free market flounders yet again. The ‘Big Six’ meet regularly behind closed doors racking up profits by keeping domestic bills broadly ‘in line’ with one another, restricting energy supplies to competitors and demanding laborious accreditation and credit requirements for new companies. As MP Alan Simpson points out deregulation has delivered an energy cartel but not energy security.

The Direct Approach

The Big Six are: Scottish and Southern Energy, Scottish Power, British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON UK and npower. The members of this exclusive club are now fat, powerful and greedy. They resist any regulation to reduce emissions whilst ripping off the consumer during a cold spell. Energy companies’ profit margins have increased for the fifth quarter in a row, while wholesale costs continue to fall. No doubt their CEOs are enjoying winter in the Caribbean on their yachts while your gran shivers at home wearing her entire wardrobe with a tea cosy on her head.

Yeah right

Instead of moving us to a new energy model the government is putting its’ efforts into an approach The Big Six approve of. It’s called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This involves capturing pollution at the chimney and pumping it underground. Despite the fact that this makes power stations 20% less efficient and despite the fact that its effectiveness is yet to be proved the government is throwing a £9.5 billion subsidy at it in the building of four new coal-fired power stations. Describing this as throwing good money after bad is the understatement of the millennium.  This ‘solution’ is the same old bullshit with a new hat on.  It’s still big, it’s still dirty it’s still inefficient… and guess what?… you’re still paying for it! Families will  have to pay a new levy on electricity bills for at least the next 20 years in order to fund this dubious technology that keeps us bound to burning fossil fuels for years to come. The government continues to rein back the noble steeds backing instead the old inefficient knacker ridden by the big fat cats.

Instead of tackling the pollution at its source the government is focusing its energy down stream on the consumer despite the fact that by this point most of the enegy has been wasted already. In this Act on CO2 advert the government skilfully uses fear and the love of our children to try to create behaviour change.

However, there isn’t much point telling people to unplug their mobile phone chargers when the companies doing the charging have a carte blanche to tip us into apocalyptic meltdown and the electricity being delivered to your house is dirtier than an oil spill in the Persian Gulf. Yes, the future is scary, in large part because our leaders are cowardly and are not making the bold joined up move to a low carbon future we so desperately need.

The government should commit to building no more old-school power stations. Instead of enormous power stations in the countryside let’s see smaller power stations around cities burning waste, secondary bio fuels and other fuels and making use of all the heat generated by connecting up to district heating networks. All new homes built should be on brown field sites joined to such a grid.

If the government doesn’t join up it’s messaging to electricity users with that to generators it risks losing any credibility on climate change when we need leadership from government most. Right now this would be a disaster and would undermine a lot of the good work that Act on CO2 has done on the consumer side.  We need to prioritize our actions in such a way that those that reap the greatest reductions in emissions are enacted first. Of course, the biggest polluters must be looked at first and hardest. By wimping out of regulating Europe’s biggest polluters what message is the government sending to us?

The usual suspects?

The repeated failure of our government to take appropriate action and reign in the power companies gives concerned citizens only one course of action. As Al Gore, Sir David King and a UK jury have made clear civil disobedience is now urgently required. Is it is time to break the law for a higher cause?

Hasta la vista baby!


9 responses to “This is not a chimney

  1. Thanks for another lucid and thought-provoking article.

    I am reluctantly coming around to the point of view that in the medium-term (by which I mean the next few decades) we have no choice but to go for the nuclear option.

    I think it is time for Ecohustler to address this question.

  2. What is a reliable figure in terms of the cost in time and money for a rip it up and start again approach to fixing the inefficiencies you highlighted?

    It will be interesting to compare this figure to the defence budget of the members of the security council over the same time frame…

  3. All good stuff. But people struggle to buy into this, don’t they? I think there are two problems. First, it’s hard for individuals to link their individual, small sphere of activity and influence with the actions of monolithic governments, energy companies, etc. Secondly, people tend to throw up their hands and say “But what can we do?”
    So, I had a couple of ideas to address these two problems.
    On the first point, I would like to see an individual “I’m Funding Armageddon Calculator”. This could be a web-based tool, whereby I can put in some personal details – age, income, travel, living arrangements, etc. and see (1) exactly how much I am paying to the energy companies every year, and (2) what impact my support for their activities is having on the planet. The latter could be some easily assimilable metric. I think if you show people that they are directly financing these activities, you will establish a simple and valuable causal link.
    On the second point, I suggest that some sort of online petition might be useful. You know, A New Start for Energy, or something like that, as follows:
    1. Draft an online manifesto, consisting of the issues you raise (in essence, tunnel vision in the energy companies, government complicity, poverty of thinking , current availability of alternatives, taxpayer funding, etc.). The scandal is not that energy companies do what they do, but that WE FUND THE FUCKERS.
    2. Demand action, with specifics (district heating, etc.).
    3. Get a million online sigs.
    4. Get it on the political Agenda ahead of the election.

  4. Hello Eco-Hustler, I like your blog and as a fellow green I agree with a lot of what you say. However I think you are wide of the mark on CCS and can’t help but respond on that matter. I fully agree that the lack of heat recovery and district heating in the UK is scandalous and needs urgently rectifying. However, I think it can only go so far. Copenhagen is fantastic but it is a city of half a million in a country of 5.5 million. Realistically, there will be a limit to how much distributed CHP we can fit into our populous cities. We need that, we need distributed renewables and we need massive end-use energy efficiency. But we need CCS too.

    Which is the more urgent problem, runaway climate change or running out of coal? I think the answer is obvious, so I see no problem with the continued burning of fossil fuels for another generation or so, provided that it is mostly emission-free. Yes there’s a hefty energy efficiency penalty in capturing the CO2, but one that is likely to drop through practice as plants get implemented. Yes, for that reason and others CCS is forecast to be very expensive in its early days. But the unfortunate truth is that almost all low carbon energy is hideously expensive when developed to become a large part of total supply, and especially when you’re starting with an ageing entrenched conventional infrastructure. We need a massive increase in renewable deployment, particularly offshore, and in efficient energy use. But it won’t come cheap, and I would argue that providing the entire energy demand through such means would cost considerably more than the £7-9.5bn expected to be raised by the CCS levy to cover part of that load through centralised CCS. Furthermore, the oft-quoted outright dismissal of CCS on the grounds that it is “unproven” is faintly ridiculous. Constructing a 2MW wind turbine was unproven until someone built one. And then 3MW and now 5MW. Landing on the moon was unproven until the Apollo missions showed it to be possible. Drilling for oil in water 2km deep was unproven until the oil price (sadly) stimulated innovation to solve the technical challenges. So why rule out the much less technically-difficult CCS on those grounds when numerous pilot projects around the world are already operating perfectly well, burying around 7 million tonnes of CO2 per year in 2010? I understand that it’s an uncomfortable thought that we will bury ‘waste’ CO2 in the earth where one could imagine that it could escape. But most geologists agree that the chances of that are minuscule. We don’t get eruptions of natural gas from gas fields everytime there’s an earthquake. Again, runaway climate change is the most serious risk we face and a minutely unlikely leakage event pales into insignificance in that context.

    And then there is the international picture. Coal is cheap, coal is plentiful, coal is located close to major anticipated centres of energy demand (US, China, India). So coal is being and will continue to be burnt in massive quantities and as a world we urgently need to do something about that. Major developing countries such as China will use the best available technology that is close to being cost effective. For example, China’s installed capacity of onshore wind turbines has more or less doubled every year for the past 5 years. They would do the same with CCS if it were closer to market effectiveness. But for now they just build unabated coal plant at a frightening rate. And this is not only true in the energy sector. There are currently precious few ideas for how to make steel and cement without burning fossil fuels. CCS could solve that in time. Therefore we in the richer developed nations have a clear moral obligation to play our part in bringing forward the technology by building large-scale demonstrations. Plus this is one way that we stand a fighting chance of maintaining some economic clout in the 21st century, selling clean technology to the majority world.

    I agree that it’s a shame that CCS is inherently large scale and will help to maintain the greedy godforsaken corporate behemoths that control the current energy business. But for me, climate change is the worse evil and the role of CCS for tackling it is too important to ignore. I welcome the CCS levy and wish that whoever wins this year’s election will redouble the commitment to leading the world in this field.
    [sorry that this a little less light-hearted than my usual stuff at , but I wanted to get it off my chest]

    • Thanks for the excellent info Mr Carbonara. I will think a little differently about CCS. however, it still feels like drawing out a duff old technoloy rather then embracing the new. Onwards!

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