All polluting coal-fired power stations will be closed by 2025 in a move that will make the UK the first major country to end use of the fossil fuel.
The UK government announcement, which comes in the run up to a crucial UN climate summit due to take place in Paris in less than a fortnight, has been welcomed in many quarters.
Aiming to close down coal power stations is commendable but planning to replace them with a new fleet of gas-fired power stations will automatically lock us into a high-carbon power system,Dr Richard Nixon
But while environmentalists have backed the historic move to phase out coal, the power source responsible for most climate-warming carbon emissions, concerns have been raised over Tory plans to switch to gas rather than cleaner technology.
There are also fears over the impact on Scotland’s renewables industry.
Campaigners have accused the Tories of “living in a fantasy world”.
Under the plans, all coal power plants which do not have technology to capture their carbon emissions will be shut by 2025, with their use restricted by 2023, a move that meets an earlier pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron to phase out coal.
The government is insisting it will be “imperative” to build new gas-fired power stations in the next decade as it turns the emphasis on to new gas and nuclear power plants to cut emissions and ensure security of the energy supply.
The move comes after a series of announcements cutting support for renewables, which ministers claimed were necessary to prevent rising costs to consumers who pay for subsidies on their energy bills.
But it is likely mechanisms will need to be found to support the building of new gas-fired plants as the government puts energy security ahead of concerns over the ability of the country’s aging energy infrastructure to keep the lights on.
Green groups are also warning that the focus on gas will jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet binding targets for renewables generation.
Scotland’s last remaining coal-fired electricity generator is set to close next spring.
“Aiming to close down coal power stations is commendable but planning to replace them with a new fleet of gas-fired power stations will automatically lock us into a high-carbon power system, guaranteeing we won’t meet UK climate targets,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of campaign group Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“We need to kick our fossil fuel habit entirely rather than switching to the ‘low-tar cigarette’ of gas.
“In Scotland we will stop burning coal to make electricity next March, and the priorities will be to boost energy-efficiency and renewable energy, on the way to a fossil-free Scotland.
“Sadly the UK’s backwards energy policy will slow down our ability to play to Scotland’s energy strengths.”
Announcing the plans, UK energy secretary Amber Rudd said: “We are tackling a legacy of under-investment and ageing power stations which we need to replace with alternatives that are reliable, good value for money and help to reduce our emissions.
“It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the UK to be relying on polluting, carbon-intensive, 50-year-old coal-fired power stations.
“Let me be clear: this is not the future.
“Our determination to cut carbon emissions as cost-effectively as possible is crystal clear, and this step will make us one of the first developed countries to commit to taking coal off our system.”
But Dr Dixon said the minister seemed to be “living in a fantasy world where nuclear is affordable, fracking is actually going to produce useful amounts of gas and our huge renewables energy potential isn’t worth bothering with”.
He claims Scotland’s successful renewables industry will be set back years because of the Tories’ “ideological objection of wind farms and solar energy”.
He added: “Calling these plans a new direction for energy policy is deeply ironic since this is clearly little more than a reheated version of Margaret Thatcher’s energy policy, which was based on the dream of nuclear and the switch from coal to gas.
“Thatcher managed to get one nuclear station built, Rudd probably won’t even manage that given the eye-watering price tag.”
Niall Stuart, chief executive of industry body Scottish Renewables, said: “It appears that the Secretary of State is bending over backwards to highlight the benefits of gas-fired and nuclear power, whilst overstating the challenges of increasing our renewable energy capacity.
“It is right that we get coal off the system but there is no mention of gas already being the UK’s main source of carbon emissions, the cost of nuclear power being significantly more expensive than onshore wind and solar, nor the challenges of managing large and inflexible nuclear power plants.
“With the promise of future support for gas, nuclear and offshore wind, it is totally unclear if there is any future for investment in onshore wind and solar, despite the fact that these are the cheapest forms of renewable power available. Both have the potential to make a significant contribution to future climate change targets while keeping bills down for consumers.”
Scotland’s last remaining coal-fired power station, Longannet in Fife, is to close on 31 March next year. However, plans to build a new gas-fired plant to replace the decommissioned Cockenzie power station have been scrapped due to high grid connection charges for facilities north of the border.
“The UK Government has recognised belatedly that its policies have weakened energy security and pushed up bills,” said Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing.
“But today Amber Rudd has missed an opportunity to put in place new plans to address the gaps in UK energy policy, with few if any new actual incentives to drive energy generation.
“Ms Rudd fails to point out that higher transmission charges in Scotland mean effectively that no new gas power stations would be built here because the costs of using the grid are higher than England. This regime which discriminates against Scottish generators affects all generators, and means that Scotland cannot attract new thermal generation when in competition with alternative sites in England.”
He added: “There is further bad news for Scotland’s renewables industry, with no support for the cheapest renewable technologies, such as onshore wind, and a further year’s delay to awarding contracts to new renewables capacity, which is particularly concerning for projects on Scottish islands and Scottish offshore wind developments.”