Scottish super-polluter mothballed: last coal power station closes
The 24th March 2016 was a day that entered the history books when the last piece of coal was burned at Longannet power station in Fife. What makes this especially symbolic is that it marks the end of the coal era in Scotland, one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution.
Record drop in CO2 emissions
A number of coal-fired power stations, such as Cockenzie further down the coast, had already closed in recent years.
The significance of the closure of Longannet – which towers above the Firth of Forth – cannot be underestimated. This closure delivers the biggest one-time reduction in CO2 emissions ever in Scotland. It is estimated that Longannet was emitting around 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year. That’s approximately the total annual emissions for the whole of Latvia.
This coal-burning giant, with a capacity of up to 2,400 megawatts, was also one of the dirtiest coal power plants in the whole of the EU and at one time supplied a quarter of Scotland’s electricity. Over 46 years it used approximately 177 million tonnes of coal, together with billions of cubic meters of water from the nearby river.
According to European Environmental Agency studies, the monetary cost of environmental damage caused by Longannet’s air pollution between 2008-2012 could be up to €5 761 million. Reports suggest that in 2006 alone, the power station’s emissions caused 690 premature deaths. And it’s not just people or the climate that were affected. Up to 20 million juvenile fish were killed each year, sucked into turbines for cooling water. In 2006 thirty different species of fish were found dead in the vicinity of Longannet
The rule of law and environmental compliance matter
Longannet will also, therefore, enter the history books for its chequered record on environmental compliance. Notably, the plant co-fired sewage and coal for seven years, despite this being illegal under European and UK law.
In 2004 the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) argued before the Court of Session that emissions from Longannet power station breached the limits prescribed by European law. According to SEPA, a more stringent system was applicable to Longannet, since it was a waste incineration plant – something which Scottish Power, which ran the plant, denied.
The court ruled that sludge pellets being used to fire the plant did come within the scope of a definition of “waste” under the European Waste Incineration Directive. As a result, Scottish Power had two possibilities, either to upgrade to the standards of the Directive or reach compliance by 28 December 2005 (the date when the Waste Incineration Directive started to apply to existing installations) or stop burning sewage.
The former option would have required investing hundreds of millions of pounds. It was also a highly politically sensitive issue given that almost half of Scotland’s sewage was at that time being converted into pellets and burned at Longannet.
Scottish Power argued that combustion of sewage pellets was the most appropriate environmental solution and did not comply with enforcement actions, a court order and the letter of law. It appealed against the decision, but again was not successful. SEPA then issued an enforcement notice to Scottish Power urging it to upgrade the pollution prevention standards of Longannet power station.
As the authority in Scotland also responsible for enforcement of Waste Incineration Regulations, SEPA eventually authorised the power station to operate until a long-term solution was found. SEPA’s enforcement notice was only formally withdrawn in 2012, when Longannet power station stopped co-firing sewage.
These facts are unfortunately not unique to Longannet and represent the sad reality of the enforcement deficit of some areas of EU environmental law. Notwithstanding the complexity of this particular issue, it seems remarkable that, despite the clear violation of European law and national law and the court order, that the power station managed to co-fire sewage and coal for such an extensive period.
A final note of caution on coal
While we celebrate the demise of coal-fired power in Scotland, we also note that Scottish Power has not yet lodged its “surrender application” with SEPA. This is the formal application to cease its operations. The environmental impacts of the site are considered against base-line reports by the agency, including confirmation from Scottish Power of the steps that have been taken to avoid pollution risks from the site and return it to a satisfactory state.
Based on experience, it will take up to a year for this process to be completed. So even though de facto the plant is not operational, de jure it will take some time until we can be absolutely certain that Scotland is entering a coal-free chapter of its history.
ClientEarth will continue to actively monitor these issues. Meanwhile, the closure is without doubt a milestone in the fight against climate change.
Image: Anna Jiménez Calaf