Improving the carbon footprint of the heavy industries of the United Kingdom

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In November 2015, it was announced by the UK government that the remaining fourteen coal power stations would be closed by 2025. The most recent to close was Aberthaw Power Station, which shut its doors on 31st March 2020, after half a century of business. At its peak in 2013, the plant generated enough electricity to illuminate 3 million homes every year. Carbon Brief deputy editor Dr Simon Evans tweeted about the closure, “Another UK coal plant is closing. 1,500MW Aberthaw B in Wales to close, citing “challenging” market conditions. Just FOUR remain: Drax, West Burton, Kilroot, and Ratcliffe.”

Focus on reducing carbon emissions from heavy industries such as power plants, refineries and steelworks has been a priority for the UK government. In the Clean Air Strategy 2019, the document reads that the carbon footprint from these industries must be drastically reduced. The “phasing-out of coal-fired power stations” and “legislating the ban on the sale of the most harmful polluting fuels” were two main objectives listed.

As the UK concludes its pollutant addiction, older plants are now being replaced with new plants fuelled by wind energy and natural gas. The fate of Aberthaw is but a precursor for the future of the remaining four coal plants, located in Nottinghamshire, Country Antrim, and North Yorkshire. Although the closures are devastating for those employed, environmentalists see this as a victory in their fight against unsustainable energy. According to statistics produced in 2018 by the UK government, coal production was 15 per cent lower than in 2017, and at a record low level, mainly due to one of the large surface mines not producing since April 2017. The percentage of electricity produced by coal production in the UK in 2018 was just 5.0%, down from 6.7% in 2017, compared to 33.3% renewables, up from 29.3%. The UK is now 8th strongest in the world for moving towards completely sustainable energy. Still, growing economies such as India and China have since utilised the coal industry, which is still the biggest source of electricity worldwide, due to higher dependency.

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Aberthaw was owned by RWE Renewables, who are now moving towards more sustainable sources of energy. The company operates the Gwynt y Mor offshore wind farm, located off the coast of North Wales. It is the fifth largest operating offshore windfarm in the world, with 160 wind turbines.

Anja Dotzenrath is CEO of RWE. Photo: RWE Renewables

CEO of RWE, Anja Dotzenrath, told Eat News, “We now have a clear goal to be carbon neutral by 2040, by phasing out fossil fuels and growing our renewable footprint at a higher pace. The UK will play a role in the renewable growth strategy, net zero legislation and carbon budgets, to meet tangible targets for every home to be powered by offshore wind within the next 10 years. We’re an established company, with 120 years in the energy industry, and we will actively support the UK in decarbonisation by investing billions to changing energy infrastructure into renewables projects. We feel more than comfortable operating within the UK and making contributions to this change.

“It’s all about becoming mainstream and making it happen, to make the transition we are not talking about anything less than fundamental change in energy infrastructure globally. The power sector is leading the way – and the way we generate power around the world is still too carbon intensive. A renewable future is the future in power generation, and we fully embrace this.”

RWE are creating sustainable operations in the UK and globally, hoping to establish a presence within Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Australia. Anja continued, “We are happy to see Taiwan fully embarking on the carbon neutral plan, in particular, offshore wind will play a vital role. We’re currently preparing for the next round of offshore energy, which will be a 448mw project off the northwest coast of Taiwan, near Hsinchu City.”

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The UK’s Clean Air Strategy (CAS) states closing the regulatory gap between the current Ecodesign and medium combustion plant regulations has been a major consideration – tackling emissions from plants in the 500kW to 1MW thermal input range. The EU Ecodesign directive establishes a framework for mandatory ecological requirements for energy-related products. Legislation on medium combustion plants (MCP) and generators has also come into force to protect air quality, meaning MCP and generator permits may now be required. This legislation has subsequently made way for the CAS to propose tighter emissions standards on this source of emissions.

The recession of the 1990s resulted in Ravenscraig major steelworks closing and forced British Steel to merge with Koninklijke Hoogovens to create Corus Group. Tata then purchased Corus in 2007, announcing in 2016 that it would close the loss-making business. Three years later, British Steel went bankrupt due to tougher permit regulations which led to an unprecedented increase in costs for the company. China, who can produce steel far cheaper under less stringent regulations, also contributed to the failure of the business.

A £35 million research network was announced in 2019 aimed at making the steel and iron industry carbon-neutral by 2040. The seven-year Sustain programme will look into harvesting new energy sources and capturing carbon emissions. Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, Sustain’s deputy director, said it would, “Support the industry’s vision for a responsible, innovative and creative future.”

Thanks to the Environment Agency, refineries are now subject to stringent regulations to keep air pollution to a minimum. These include: ensuring fuel is as clean as possible (burning low sulphur refinery or natural gas); using abatement inside a reactor in which chemical reactions are taking place, ensuring combustion is as complete as possible; and abating releases downstream of combustion plants or reactors. Specific policies on abatement of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and further general controls are listed for refineries to comply with.

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Moving towards renewables as the UK’s main source of energy is the proposed plan to meet energy targets by 2025. Depleting the need for and use of power plants across the country, as well as heavily regulating carbon-emitting refineries and products is the current objective.

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Emily Lowes is an Eat News correspondent in the UK who has experience writing social, political, and economic features for a range of news outlets. She is an avid communicator, activist, and advocate for the freedom of information.


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