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A smiling child gazes up into lush green foliage; boats float in a tranquil harbour; a couple stand by a gate in a misty, magical landscape. These are some of the images that greet you when you visit the website of E On UK, ‘Britain’s leading energy company’. The gentle giant provides energy for homes and schools, and more – scroll down and the issues covered range from community volunteering to E On’s investment in renewable energy.
Moreover, E On is taking the threat of climate change seriously, as the main sponsor of the Guardian’s ‘climate change summit’, where it will convene a session examining ‘the role of energy companies in finding effective ways to deliver the transition to secure, affordable and low-carbon energy’.
More specifically, the website describes E On’s new ‘clean coal’ power station at Kingsnorth in Kent, which will replace existing plant and employ ‘supercritical technology’ to make it 20 per cent more efficient. To top it all, it will be built with the capacity to retrofit carbon capture and storage (CCS), a new technology designed to reduce emissions still further.
E On, it seems, is trying very hard. So hard that it has recently hired Edelman, a world leader in the public relations field and the self-proclaimed inventor of ‘environmental PR’. The threat? The Camp for Climate Action, which will be coming to Kingsnorth this August. E On says it respects the right to protest, and just wants to be able to operate and provide power for its customers’ homes and businesses.
Seems reasonable enough? Let’s look beyond the greenwash.
Kingsnorth is a coal-fired power station. Coal may pose ‘the greatest threat to the climate’, according to James Hansen, NASA scientist, but as a source of power generation it is very cheap. And there’s plenty of it, at least for the time being. So, as E On is firmly committed to maximising profits for its shareholders, it is firmly committed to coal. Which doesn’t really square with a ‘low-carbon’ goal.
E On UK is part of the German-based E On group, which has at least eight new coal-fired power stations planned in Europe and one in the US in the next five years. This energy giant prides itself on working towards ‘vertical integration’ – gaining control of the entire supply chain – and its portfolio covers coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy.
E On generates around 10 per cent of our electricity in the UK. Of that, for all the talk, renewables weigh in at a paltry 2 per cent, while coal accounts for a massive 61 per cent. E On has three coal-fired power stations including Kingsnorth, and their combined generation is greater than any other UK company’s.
Since the winding down of the UK coal industry in the 1980s, the coal-fired stations built in the 1960s and 1970s have been ticking over. However, EU legislation limiting emissions means that most will have to close. It is this, rather than any aspiration to be environmentally responsible, that is driving the wave of seven proposed new coal-fired power stations in the UK. These will ensure that coal is burned for the next 50 years at least. The new plant at Kingsnorth will produce eight million tonnes of CO2 per year. ‘Clean coal’ is a contradiction in terms.
Then we come to the big red herring that is CCS – an as yet unproven technology whereby CO2 is sequestered and stored away. Even if it turns out to be technically feasible, it will be costly and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is unlikely to be commercially viable for decades – far too late to have any impact on climate change. But this hasn’t stopped E On and companies like it from using CCS as a justification for new coal-fired power power stations such as at Kingsnorth.
The alternatives are clear. If, as the government states, the UK is set to become a world-leader in technologies such as wind and wave power, the coal industry is ripe for what is known as a ‘just transition’ to green-collar jobs. The German environmental engineering sector has generated some 250,000 jobs in the past four years, a figure that dwarfs the 5,600 in UK coal.
The revitalisation of the coal industry is a path the government and energy companies shouldn’t even be thinking of treading in the face of climate change. It is up to us to stand squarely in the way.