Can coal continue in a low carbon world?
Did you know that Yorkshire has the biggest carbon footprint of any region in Britain - and the second highest in all of Europe?
It's not because we drive our cars more than anyone else; or because we use more electricity. It's because of one of the most recognisable landmarks in Yorkshire, which is also one of the most controversial. We've all seen the famous cooling towers of Drax power station near Selby, and its neighbours at Ferrybridge and Eggborough.
Drax is the biggest coal-fired power station in Western Europe. In burning coal, it emits 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the same as a quarter of all the cars on the UK's roads in a year, and around 3% of the UK's total carbon dioxide output, making it the countries biggest single producer of C02. But without it, there would be a real danger the lights would go out. It generates 7% of all the UK's power, or enough electricity for all of Yorkshire
But are coal-fired power stations compatible with a low-carbon world? I've been inside Drax; they are taking steps to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. By next year over a million tonnes of Coal will be replaced by biomass materials such as straw and willow. Drax is also upgrading its turbines; once these upgrades are completed, the efficiency of the power station will rise from 38% to 40%, reducing fuel burn by ½ a million tonnes a year, and reducing C02 emissions by another 1 million tonnes. They also say that they will look closely at carbon capture if the technology is shown to work on a large scale.
But climate campaigners say it's not enough, and coal-fired power stations are simply incompatible with government targets and a greener future. By 2050, the UK government wants an 80% cut in emissions. They say that must mean an end to coal-fired facilities.
Coal is though a vital part of power generation, and along with gas is the only way to react to demand rises on a large scale. This is because nuclear power output is constant, whereas renewables such as wind only work when the wind blows. But if demand for electricity rockets, for example during bad weather, coal and gas fired stations can ramp up supply at short notice - something that other stations can't do.
It's a real dilemma; at the moment, Britain can't live without coal if we're to meet our current energy demands. But if we're to meet our targets to cut carbon emissions, we can't live with current emission levels from big coal-fired power stations like Drax, either.