Green lawyers claim plans to convert Selby coal units to gas power risk locking in high carbon infrastructure that could undermine UK's climate commitments
Drax's plans to develop several new gas-fired power units in North Yorkshire have hit a snag after environmental lawyers at ClientEarth lodged a written objection claiming the project risks "locking in high-carbon energy on the grid until 2050".
ClientEarth yesterday revealed it has submitted a written objection to the 3GW energy project in Selby, which would see Drax covert two coal-fired units into four gas units, on the grounds it breaches the government's planning and climate change guidelines.
Drax argues the 'Repower' conversion project could enable the company to stop using coal power generation altogether by 2023, helping to cut emissions while also delivering flexible gas power to support the grid as the UK's renewables capacity increases.
As part of its strategy to shift its business away from coal, Drax has already converted four former coal units at Selby to run on biomass. The remaining two coal units at the plant, meanwhile, have been earmarked for conversion to gas and would also be teamed up with battery storage.
But ClientEarth claims conversion of the two coal units to four combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) would nearly treble the units' overall generation capacity, and could therefore lead to a "significant increase" in the power plant's greenhouse gas emissions.
Due to their size, the proposals for Selby are considered a nationally significant infrastructure project and must therefore comply with relevant national policy statements before the government can grant planning consent. The policy statements warn against the UK becoming "locked into a system of high carbon generation", adding that "we cannot afford for this to happen".
Sam Hunter Jones, ClientEarth's climate accountability lawyer, claimed giving the green light to the Drax project would breach these national guidelines and "seriously undermine" the UK government's 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," he said. "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."
The four new gas turbines proposed by Drax at Selby would have an operational life of 25 years, but ClientEarth cited analysis by the UK's climate watchdog - the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) - that there should be no more gas on the grid by 2030 unless partnered with CCS technology to capture emissions.
With carbon capture and storage yet to be cost-effectively developed at scale in the UK, the law firm argues the Selby units should be retired altogether by the UK's 2025 deadline for phasing out coal, or converted to run on a low carbon energy source.
It also said the gas project is unnecessary for the UK's future energy needs, with enough UK gas projects already in the pipeline to meet forecast demand. "The government needs to base its plans on the future not the past," added Hunter Jones. "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."
But Drax Power CEO Andy Koss hit back at ClientEarth's claims. Koss cited the IPCC's recent 1.5C report which said up to 85 per cent of power generation would need to come from renewables by 2050, with the remainder provided by other flexible energy technologies, including gas, to balance the grid and "keep the lights on".
He added the CCC has also set out the need for flexible gas plants in the UK to help meet power generation gaps in the 2020s, and pointed to academic analysis suggesting flexible power such as gas will be vital in controlling the UK's energy system costs as more renewables come online.
"Our Repower project will deliver cost effective, high efficiency, flexible gas power to the grid," said Koss in a statement. "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."
Drax has also been scaling up its gas business elsewhere, having last month acquired ScottishPower's 2.5GW gas generation business in a deal with more than £702m. The deal turns the latter firm into a 100 per cent renewable energy operator, and is further evidence of Drax's efforts to move away from coal and future-proof its business model.
Yet ClientEarth's intervention presents a callenge for the company's plans, and could signpost further troubles ahead if the wider market begins shifting more rapidly away from gas towards renewables. After all, it's not just coal plants that are at risk of eventually becoming stranded assets in a net zero world.
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