A spokeswoman said that no decision had yet been made. The government could instead decide to allow coal plants still open in 2020 to operate for a limited period or to keep them in reserve to stop the lights going out.
A spokesman for a company operating several coal plants in the UK said that even if Miliband did not carry out his threat and force existing coal plants to fit expensive CCS equipment, any further restrictions on their operation would be likely to result in their closure. It will probably prove too difficult and expensive to fit CCS to plants nearing the end of their lifespan.
Drax is the UK’s newest and biggest coal-fired station. The Yorkshire plant, which provides about 8 per cent of Britain’s electricity, is technically able to continue to operate into the 2030s. But since it is 40 miles from the coast, transporting captured carbon for storage in the North Sea would be particularly difficult.
Dorothy Thompson, chief executive of Drax, accepted that the plant might eventually need to fit CCS but did not say when this would be feasible or economic.
David Porter, head of trade body the Association of Electricity Producers, said he welcomed CCS as a way of making coal plants environmentally acceptable, but said existing stations which could not fit the equipment should not be forced to close. “There are already quite enough coal-fired plants coming off the system. Security of supply should be taken seriously,” he warned.
The Guardian has also learnt that E.ON’s controversial plans to build a new coal-fired station in Kingsnorth – the first in the UK for more than 20 years – are likely to be delayed by several years at least. It would represent a temporary victory for environmental campaigners, who staged last summer’s climate camp near the Kent site. The Kingsnorth plans could be scrapped altogether.
E.ON has entered the new station into a government competition to build the first commercial-scale CCS demonstration project. DECC has now admitted that the decision to pick a winner has been delayed and will not take place until the autumn of 2010 at the earliest. Miliband reiterated the government’s ambition to have the winning project operational in 2014.
E.ON is becoming increasingly concerned about the tight schedule of four years to build its first highly efficient coal plant in the UK which is also equipped with experimental CCS technology. The delay in the competition could favour Scottish Power’s entry at Longannet, which involves attaching CCS to an existing coal station.
Miliband told the Guardian that the short space of time for E.ON to build a new plant was “one of the factors” which would influence the decision but declined to comment further.
Paul Golby, E.ON’s chief executive, has admitted the firm would not build Kingsnorth if it did not win the competition. Under Miliband’s plans announced in April, all new coal plants must fit CCS to part of the operation. Golby said it would not be economic to do this without government subsidies and added that E.ON could build a gas plant instead.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, urged the government to make all existing coal plants fit CCS: “If we fail to act, Drax will remain one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide in the world for decades,” he said. “The government’s own advisors on climate change have stated that all emissions from coal must cease by the early 2020s.
“That’s all coal, not just new coal, so it’s vital that Ed Miliband’s new policy doesn’t ignore the inconvenient truth that we need to deal with the reality of Drax every bit as urgently as the threat of Kingsnorth.”