Chief Operating Officer of energy think tank Ember, Phil MacDonald, talks to Alasdair about the new challenges of decarbonising the global energy sector and what has been achieved so far in Europe in the UK.
He explains how the gradual phasing out of coal use has switched the focus to other fossil fuels and how the UK's need to show climate leadership for the next COP may be creating unnecessary pressures for finding so called "negative emissions".
Hello, and welcome to the economy land and climate podcast. In this episode, I spoke to Phil McDonald, the COO of the energy and climate things I can Ember,Phil:
we've kind of uncovered that methane leaks from Poland's coal mines has a worse climate impact than than Europe's largest coal power station. So all these, all these leaks, which are kind of happening in the background and ignored are actually worse than the the well known coal power station lists at the center of the parish energy sector,Alasdair:
I started by asking Phil to explain embers work, and where things were on the challenge of phasing out the use of coal as a global energy source.Phil:
I think the best way to put it is we're a collection of power sector experts, as you said, like the power sector is, is what we're focused on. And yeah, these these kind of experts that we've collected together, like many have worked previously, in the, in the energy companies in the UK and elsewhere, and we're all about data. We're about gathering, curating, and analyzing the data. And that could be, you know, that the amount of coal power in Indonesia, or how how much growth has been in solar in Czechia, something like that, we gather all this data together. And then we try to use that data to change policy. We grew out of an older campaign group called Sandbag that was focused on the carbon market. So it's out way back in 2008. And that was all focused about fixing this, the EU carbon market, which kind of, hadn't worked, for a long time, or the last decade that basically wasn't doing very much. And that's kind of where we got this taste for big data that Ember's carried on with now. So the the UK market covers 11,000 or so, installation, so factories and power stations. And we kind of realized that the we had all this data on all these, all the all the power sector, all these factories, and we realized that the real core of tackling climate change was these power stations, and particularly coal power stations. And so I mean, you might have heard this, the half of the emissions cuts that we need, in this this decade, that slow down the climate crisis will come from coal. And so that's our real, we're squarely focused on on coal. An example of what we do, one good one, recently is kind of using this data knowhow to uncover the problem of methane leaks from coal mines, which, which is a big problem very big ignored probably around the world. And said, we've we've kind of uncovered that methane leaks from Poland's coal mines has a worse climate impact than than Europe's largest coal power stations. So all these, all these leaks, which are kind of happening in the background, and they're ignored are actually, you know, worse than the the well known coal power station, that's the center of the Polish energy sector. So that kind of, we reveal that kind of thing, get some media attention for it. And then we and then we use that, that attention on this new subject to try and change policy. And so now we're working with the European Commission, and companies in Poland, to try and introduce legislation that stops these leaks. So that's, that's a great example of what Ember does. I guess the other part of what you're you're asking about she is about the trying to phase out the use of the use of coal and kind of where are we on on coal? So I guess with coal - I've been personally campaigning against coal, way back since since 2008, since the climate camps at Kings North power station in the UK, and I think things have changed hugely across that more than a decade. So back then back in 2008, the fight was to stop new coal power stations in in the UK. Since then, with this huge change, basically, coal power is- all across Europe, not just in the UK - is losing money hand over fist. And country after country is ending coal for good and the UK is almost there, you know, down to our last few power stations which which barely run, which is amazing. And yeah, a good example of that is kind of when we when we helped to found Europe Beyond Coal back in 2017, which isn't isn't that long ago. There was this target of trying to get all of European coal closed by 2030. And back then that - even back in 2017, which isn't that long ago - that looked like a really ambitious aim. And I would say, just in the last six months, it now looks like it's gonna happen this decade, like it's gonna happen before 2030. So, so it's amazing the pace of change with with coal. That's, that's really exciting. So so so, you know, really great news in the UK, really great news in, in Europe, the kind of issue is that there's still, there's still bits of the world where where coal is still is still king. And so last year, looking at what happened in the pandemic, obviously, there are huge changes in the power sector. So in places like Europe, in the USA, even in India, coal was falling, which is, which is amazing. And there's one country in the G20, that stood out. And even despite the pandemic, were still growing coal, and that's China. And China is building a staggering amount of renewables, it's building a staggering amount of wind and solar, as well as nuclear as well as hydro. But it just has this extraordinary power sector, the power demand growth, so just the, the demand for electricity is is is so huge, that it just can't keep up with all the renewables that are being built. And that's why it's the only country in the G20 that's still growing coal. And it's kind of extraordinary to hear that that the per capita demand for energy in China is now above the UK. So it's, it's it's kind of gone past us now. Because it's this just industrial powerhouse for the whole world. Yeah, and so so that's really the focus is is shifting somewhat, the coal phaseout, we've got to accelerate it still further in, in Europe, but we really got to get it started in, in Asia, and in China, in particular,Alasdair:
Ember's aiming to look at reducing other fossil fuel energies, I think you're looking at other types of phase out of fossil fuels. So there's still talk about, I remember, you've mentioned in the past the phase out of gas by by 2035. Can you tell us more about that? And how realistic Do you think that kind of target is?Phil:
As I say, kind of following on from this, the coal phase out happening maybe quicker than people were expecting. There's also this very exciting spoken and unspoken consensus around decarbonizing the power sector, completely getting fossil fuels, out of the power sector. And that's, that's kind of coming from, from three, three leaders on this, which is we've got Biden in now, Biden is is committed to zero carbon power system by 2035. It's an, you know, an ambitious target for for the US, but that's very exciting. In the UK, obviously, the coal phaseout is almost complete. And the climate change committee that advises the government is advising a phaseout of gas power by 2035. So you've got, you've got US, you've got the UK. And then it's more implied, but in the EU, in the EU climate law, which is just being agreed at the minute, it's basically implied in the in the target that we're, we're heading for a zero carbon power sector by the by the 20, mid 2030s. So so all of them are kind of beginning to collect around this idea of 2035 as being the time that you need to have a decarbonize power sector in order to meet this 1.5 target, that all these countries have. And that might be slightly later for outside the OECD. So maybe for for China say it would be 2040, but it's really not much later. So it's all this kind of power sector decarbonisation is going to happen in the in the 2030s. And then that allows us to build off once we've got a clean power sector, you can then use the power use all that clean power to decarbonize everything else. So you can decarbonize heat and transport and industry by running off electric. Yeah, and so so kind of, so I think it is quite realistic that that we could win those sorts of commitments, particularly in the UK. We, you know, we've kind f passed the coal phaseout argum nt now. And the discussion really has moved on to how we ow we eliminate fossil gas completely. The interestin question is around how mu h of that can come from renewabl s. So it's absolutely co sensus that wind and solar pow r are the backbone of these of t ese power systems. So, you know, in the in the UK, we're looking t wind and solar, you know, b 90%, at least of them of the p wer system by the mid 2030. The interesting question a d the kind of thorny one is hat final 10%, like how we keep he lights on, when it's not sunn or windy, these bits of t e power system that are a litt e bit more complicated, and ome of that is going to come rom energy storage. There' some really interesting inn vation around really long ter energy storage that last for eeks instead of the hours t at the batteries currently la t. But yeah, there's obviousl there's a lot of differe t solutions being proposed from in that area, in thi final 10% area. And the kind of the interesting bit as we hink about the 2035 gas phaseo t is some of these high risk olutions. And that is kind o why we began to have a little bit of a look at biomass and BE CS. Which is a growing part of the power system.Alasdair:
You mentioned, biomass and BECCS. That brings us on quite neatly to another of Ember's focuses. And you've just published this analysis of the costs of building a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage plants or our backs plant at Drax in the UK, which you would say would cost 31 billion pounds. Why the focus on this?Phil:
Yeah, so I think it's good to explain so that that kind of 31 billion is the headline, but to try and explain why Ember is focused on the power sector, like why why are we looking at this? There's kind of, there's two main reasons. So as the coal phase out, as is happening, lots of countries are looking at how the UK has done the coal phase out, which part of that was replacing our our largest power station, Drax switching that from coal to biomass. Lots of other countries are looking at that, that pathway and thinking maybe we can do that too. Maybe we don't have to close our coal power stations, maybe we can just switch them to burning wood. And we kind of, we wanted to check that that was really as good an idea as, as it sounds. And so that's, that's kind of one area where we're seeing how other countries are copying what the UK is is doing. And that's especially true around Europe, as the coal phase out is accelerating. But you know, people are looking at that all over the place. And that has an interesting effect, obviously, on the supply of wood and who's using it. But yeah, then the kind of second reason that we have been looking at biomass effects, is because negative emissions are so, so important for climate models. And so they're those kind of, they're built into a lot of climate modeling. And there's an assumption that these, these negative emissions will come from burning wood, then storing that co2 deep underground with with carbon capture and storage. And so the UK, the UK is because we're a bit of a bit ahead of things with the coal phase out, we're kind of a climate laboratory for what will happen next with what happened next with the power sector and, and so Drax, which would be the world's first BECCS power plant is really going to lead the world in towards this solution for negative emissions or away from it, depending how it works. So so that's why we kind of dig into that a bit more.Alasdair:
So can you tell us a little bit more about what you actually found from from the digging that you did?Phil:
Yeah, sure. So we've been keeping tabs on subsidies kind of across the power sector for a few years. So there's still plenty of subsidies paid to coal and gas plants in the form of the capacity markets obviously less so to coal now is it's almost been eliminated. And so we've been trying to shape those subsidies to try and try and get the government to use them a bit more efficiently. And that led us on thinking about looking at the subsidies that the the Drax is getting, the huge subsidies for biomass, and so they're very chunky Drax is getting got 832 million last year, and then add on all the tax exemptions that it gets and it's more than a billion pounds of subsidy annually. And those subsidies coming to an end in 2027. Drax are looking for their for their next subsidies, which could come from this proposed BECCS plant. And so we wanted to kind of dig in to see, to give a bit of transparency to the public about what those costs might be. And so we kind of dug into the literature, we're using government sponsored studies, so show trying to take stuff that BEISS already has in the archive to make to make this first public estimate of the cost of the of the BECCS plant, and is this 31 billion over over 25 years. And we're really, we're putting out there and we're appealing to, to Drax, in particular to kind of to put their own their own estimate out there, which at the minute has been, has been completely not clear how much that will cost. So kind of like 31 billion, it's a difficult number to envisage what that what that means. But it's a similar scale to to Hinkley, the nuclear project, and arguably the world's most expensive power project. Which is, which is pretty extraordinary. So it really has to deliver if it's, if it's, if it's important to do, it could still be worth, it could still be worth doing. But it really does have to deliver for that kind of cost. And, yeah, so I think I think we, it is important to say that it could still, it could still be worth doing because we've seen a lot of examples of, of innovative green tech that that has been worth spending some money on. So offshore wind was very expensive when it started on these initial projects, which admittedly, were smaller projects. And then now it's come down is the the cheapest electricity around for UK offshore wind. BECCS doesn't have the same opportunity to get cheaper, like offshore wind does. There's kind of a baseline cost for biomass in that it's very costly to ship trees across the Atlantic and then it's very expensive to have very complicated to burn them. It's quite a process to to get there. So there's no, there's not quite the same economies of scale that we could have from one plant in, in the UK. But that really doesn't get to the, I guess my real fear around BECCS is that with biomasses, and with BECCS, there's a real risk of the UK doesn't get what is paying for. So this huge bill, it could actually be counterproductive to what we're what we're intending. So basically, burning burning word for power just has these enormous long tail risks kind of so they're in the worst case scenarios for for biomass. It can be worse than coal. And so obviously in that in that situation of if we're getting the wrong wood, and with the wrong scenario for, for bringing this wood in, we could we could be having a BECCS project, which is actually a net emitter and not a carbon sink. And so and obviously we'd be paying through the nose for that. So it's really important that we understand whether that's what we're getting with the Drax project or not. And yeah, so so the the kind of feeling after completing this research is that there's there's a need for a lot more understanding of what BECCS can actually deliver, and a lot more regulation to make sure that there aren't these these enormous risks that in actual fact were contributing to climate change when we run these BECCS projects.Alasdair:
it does raise the the issue of current net zero targets which are now in kind of policy fashion versus aiming for for maybe what some others might call or what might be called absolute zero, or a zero carbon target. What are your thoughts on the current net zero focus and of using so called negative emissions? Do we need to amend our focus a little? I mean, do you think we're creating easy ways out for for offsetting and for polluters to to just use offsets?Phil:
I think is going to be the most interesting question and And one of your points with with BECCS, I'm assuming - or the use debate of the of the next few years trying to understand... So basically built into all these models is a huge amount of negative emissions. The assumption is that these technologies will appear. And that could be, it could be BECCS, it could be direct air capture, it could be aforestation and other ways of getting negative emissions. But there's there really is a huge reliance on this kind of silver bullet technology of BECCS to deliver these negative of BECCS and the development of BECCS - I'm assuming might be emissions. I think it makes the Drax project incredibly interesting, because if it's established here, as it's beginning to look like that in actual fact that the BECCS isn't delivering the negative emissions, that it's promising, then, then that kind of sends a signal around the world, to other governments that are thinking about their built in negative emissions and other companies indeed, that have built in negative emissions into their targets, that they need to think differently about them. And they need to find a different way to get these negative emissions or, or go further and think about the targets themselves. Trying to understand, trying to understand what's actually available is quite, it's quite difficult. Net Zero is very in vogue at the minute and love, a lot of companies have committed to net zero alongside a lot of governments and and they're kind of, yeah, they've got this they've got this hope that this technology will come through for them. And there hasn't been much kicking of the tires to check whether whether BECCS actually elivers what it delivers And so I think that's the thin to, to really kind of expose, nd it really needs some proper s udy to work out whether these, t ese negative emissions targets re kind of built on sand. that there just needs to be a kind of measured approach to how it's looked at and developed. Is that is that right? Is that fair? So in other words, your we just need to have a more... we n ed to think more slowly about ab ut how it's developed and how i's used. And it seems to be ru hed. Yeah. So so with, with COP coming up at the end of the year, the Climate Change Conference, the government has an incentive to kind of come up with a with a quick answer around negative emissions. And I think that's pushing into a bit of a corner of, of trying to rush along with a technology that's really in its infancy not just around the carbon capture and storage side, but really understanding biomass. And I think that the science of biomass is really, has advanced so much, since it began, like, early on there was this, you know, very easy assumption when there wasn't much science around around forestry to say, yeah, it's carbon neutral, just go with that assumption, and that that really has been undermined over the, over the last decade or so. And that assumption just doesn't stand up anymore. So it'd be quite a, an unusual point in time to, to wade into a huge BECCS project without really understanding the emissions inherent in biomass so essential to making the next project actually work. I think we'd urge real caution, and to try and, you know, there's both the kind of the pilot scale for how the storage actually works. But also, and more importantly, working out where this wood is coming from, what are the emissions actually inherent in the whole lifecycle of the, of the forest? And that's, that's what we don't have an answer on. Yeah, I'dAlasdair:
like to ask you about Ember's plans for for the next few years. I think that ties in to where you have the greatest concerns around energy and climate policy development over the future. Where do you think the biggest problems are going to be in the coming years?Phil:
Yeah, well, I mean, one way of looking at it is that we've kind of, we've done some of the easy stuff. No one really had to, no one in the UK has, has had to even notice that the electricity coming out the plugs now is is mainly coal free. And so that was the kind of relatively easy thing to do, although with an absolutely enormous, enormous lift around things like offshore wind. But now we there, we've got cheap renewables, much cheaper than gas or coal. And so that's great. That's easy. And we can build out, we can build out renewables - it's still a huge task to build out enough to meet this 2035 target, but it definitely looks realistic that that can actually happen if the government gets its act together. And particularly exciting, I guess, on top of that is, is not just offshore wind, it's floating offshore wind now that expands hugely the amount of power that's on offer. Yeah, so as I, as I mentioned before, the kind of the counter to that is this this final bit, we can get an enormous amount the backbone of the of the energy system coming from, from renewables from wind and solar. How do we do this, this, this final slice, and that's the, that's the bit they're still worrying. And there's not enough money and research going into that energy storage question and how you do that final 10%. And it gets controversial, it begins to bring in things like carbon capture and storage, like nucular. There's some difficult trade offs. And then, of course, biomass. And so we need to, I think we need to get this, we need to get this right. There's a lot of kind of easy solutions floating around, like hydrogen that don't actually deliver, don't necessarily deliver huge emissions reductions. They can, but you need to do them correctly to get it right. And it's, you know, if we're getting hydrogen from gas and from fossil gas, then then we're not getting the emissions reductions that we that we think we might be. So similar issues to biomass where, when you do the basic accounting, it looks it looks good, and then when you dig a little bit, a little bit deeper into the full lifecycle, and you understand that, that maybe emissions are reduced quite as much as as we thought.Alasdair:
My thanks to Phil MacDonald November for his time. If you enjoyed the podcast, please do subscribe or follow us. And we'll hope to have more interesting interviews on climate topics in the very near future. Thanks for listening.