The electricity generation sector is subject to a very high level of environmental regulation.
It is also a consistently high performer in terms of compliance with Environmental Permits, with 100% of regulated combustion sites within the Environment Agency’s ‘good performance’ compliance bands A, B and C (79% of which were in band A) in 2016
The vast majority of UK environmental regulation originates from the transposition and implementation of European Union Directives and Regulations.
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions
The Climate Change Act 2008 established a target for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. BEIS reported that as of 2016, the energy supply sector was responsible for 25% of total GHG emissions in the UK.
While fossil fuels still represent a significant, but reducing, proportion of the UK energy mix, BEIS provisionally reported that the energy supply sector has reduced overall GHG emissions by 57% between 1990 and 2016 and was also the largest contributor to the decrease in GHG emissions between 2015 and 2016.
This is largely a result of switching fuels from coal to gas, with coal-fired power generation having decreased by 86% between 1990 and 2016 and 62% solely from 2015-16. Renewable generation occupying a larger share of the market has also played a large role in GHG emission reductions, with renewable sources accounting for 24.5% of UK’s electricity supply mix in 2016. (Source: BEIS Statistical Release: 2016 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures)
The current framework in place to tackle carbon emissions at European level includes the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) which puts a steadily reducing cap on carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial emitters and the power sector. As the EU ETS is a ‘cap and trade’ system, it has created a market price for carbon allowances which is reflected in the cost of electricity. Find out more about the EU Emissions Trading System on the European Commission’s website.
Other air emissions
The main emissions to air from power stations that give cause for concern are sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and dust (particulate matter, or PM2.5). All three are relevant to coal-fired stations, but NOx is the most significant emission from gas-fired stations. Power station emissions have been subject to European legislation since 1988. A fuel switch from coal to gas caused significant reductions in SO2 in the 1990s.
More recently, the Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) (2001/80/EC) has been an effective driver in the reduction of SO2 emissions through the installation of Flue Gas Desulphurisation at coal-fired stations. Overall, SO2 emissions reduced by 97% between 2000 and 2016.
From January 2016, the LCPD was replaced by the Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU), which is expected to drive a step change in the reduction of NOx emissions.
As it stands, NOx emissions have decreased by 683% between 2000 and 2016, falling by 27% between 2012 and 2015.
Since 2000, emissions of Particulate Matter (PM) have also decreased substantially with emissions of PM10 and PM2.5 from the combustion industry decreasing by 92% and 72% respectively.
Environment Agency: Environmental outlook for the combustion sector (2016)
Power stations in England are environmentally regulated by the Environment Agency (EA) to limit their impact on the surrounding natural landscape and population. Energy UK works closely with the EA to ensure compliance and high environmental performance. Our consistent and valuable engagement has resulted in the combustion sector achieving high compliance with its permits and a steadily reducing environmental impact. This progress and ongoing success is summarised in the EA’s Environmental outlook for the combustion sector report.
Energy UK members in the Joint Environmental Programme (JEP) have produced two reports on water use at thermal power plants. The first sets out the current status of UK power plant water use as well as future scenarios and their potential implications for the water requirements of the power sector and other societal water demands. You can read the full report here. The second outlines how the future development of water requirements by the power sector can only be assessed with a very substantial uncertainty; uncertainty which increases with time and which results from the variability of the water gross use and consumption rates associated with different cooling technologies. This report can be read here.
According to the Environment Agency, overall water use (mains water plus direct abstraction) by the combustion sector decreased by 20%, from almost 2 billion m3 in 2014 to 1.6 billion m3 in 2015. This is mainly due to the closure of large ‘once through cooling’ power stations under the Large Combustion Plant Directive.
Since 2010, net water use by the sector has decreased from 0.19 billion m3 to 0.11 billion m3 in 2015, falling by 20 million m3 between 2014 and 2015.
1) Chart: Environment Agency’s Business and environment report: Environmental outlook for the combustion sector (2016)
Water Resources East
Energy UK is currently a partner in the Water Resources East (WRE) project: a cross-sectoral project led by Anglian Water working with input from the energy, agricultural, water supply and environmental interest groups.
The WRE mission is to work in partnership to safeguard a sustainable supply of water for the East of England, resilient to future challenges and enabling the area’s communities, environment and economy to reach their full potential.
The East of England is already facing the threat of water shortages. Climate change, population growth and abstraction reductions mean that the risk of water shortages will be even greater in future, unless we take action now. WRE is pioneering a new, collaborative approach to water stewardship. The project is working to create a multi-sector long-term water resource strategy, which balances affordability and reliability with sustainability and environmental stewardship.
Energy UK is providing input on the potential impacts of water shortage on the power sector.
For more information, see the Water Resources East website.