Capacity market provides another twist in the Government’s air quality battle

As the UK Government returns to court over illegal air quality levels, new analysis from think-tank Sandbag has warned that up to £800m could be spent in the UK to subsidise a plethora of new diesel generators during the next 15 years.

The UK Government has today (18 October) resumed its longstanding legal battle with environmental lawyers ClientEarth to address the UK’s “woeful” approach to tackling air pollution, which saw London take just one week to breach annual pollution limits in 2016.

As the legal battle rumbles on, Friends of the Earth has called on the UK Government to phase-out diesel engines and vehicles to “make sure we can all breathe clean air”.

“Air pollution is a public health crisis, leading to 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK,” Friends of the Earth’s air pollution campaigner Aaron Kiely said. “Too many children are growing up breathing illegally dirty air, which can lead to impaired lung development for life.

“We know road traffic is the biggest problem for air pollution in the UK and diesel is the worst of all. Which is why the government must be bold and put in place a plan to phase out diesel from our roads, if it is serious about cleaning up the air we breathe.”

“The government shouldn’t have to be taken all the way to court, again, just to make sure we can all breathe clean air. Post-Brexit it is vital that the UK enshrines in law EU legal limits for air pollution, and moves towards complying with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels in order to save lives.”

Diesel’s new market

Despite the calls from Kiely to implement a diesel phase-out, new analysis from think-tank Sandbag has revealed that up to 246 new diesel projects have submitted bids for the capacity market subsidy scheme.

With the capacity market decision due in September, Sandbag noted that 498 projects are bidding on 15-year contracts to build new electrical capacity.

Of the 498 projects, Sandbag notes that 246 of them – with a combined capacity of almost 4GW – could be diesel generators. The projects, which would have a total capacity higher than the Hinkley nuclear plant, could soon receive around £800m if the bidding process is successful.

“Battery technology appears for the first in scale, making up 23% (2.0GW) of the distributed generation,” a Sandbag blogpost reveals. “Gas was 25% (2.2GW). Diesel was 4% (0.3GW). 

“However, a further 3.6GW is not defined, and we suspect the vast majority of this is diesel. The reasons we suspect this is mostly diesel are: first diesel is far cheaper and easier than gas, second we would expect gas to define as gas to avoid the stigma of maybe being diesel, and third gas requires a connection which is not mentioned in the descriptions.”

If the assumptions prove correct, Sandbag has also pointed out that the capacity of the diesel bids will have increased five-fold from the last market decision. Last year, around three-quarters of the 0.87MW diesel bids were accepted for 15 year contracts at the cost of £176m. According to Sandbag, if this year’s market were to allocate the same proportion to diesel generators, they would receive £800m over the next 15 years.

Coal consequences

The analysis and calls to scrap diesel arrives on the same day that the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change – which represents 600,000 doctors, nurses and allied health professionals – has called on the Government to protect the health of the public by implementing its intended phase-out of coal-powered plants.

The Alliance has published the A Breath of Fresh Air report, highlighting that air pollution from coal plants is causing “serious health conditions” such as strokes, coronary heart disease and lung cancer. The Alliance is alarmed by the lack of consultation documents as to how the Government intends to end the burning of coal by 2025.

Commenting on the report, the Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive Janet Davies said: “Cutting air pollution from coal will greatly benefit the lives of many people with long-term chronic health conditions and help to protect the health of future generations.

“Tackling air pollution and climate change will have numerous health benefits but it requires a joined-up approach from Government to ensure the health impacts are better recognised and fully realised.”

Matt Mace

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