When the steam turbines at Longannet power station cease to turn some time tomorrow there will be no coal being burnt for electricity production anywhere in Scotland for the first time in at least 115 years. For a country which virtually invented the Industrial Revolution, this will be a hugely significant step, the beginning of the end for fossil fuels in Scotland.
By Guinnog (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It all started in 1901 when Pinkston power station at Glasgow’s Port Dundas started burning coal to make the electricity to run Glasgow’s trams and street lighting. Other stations came and went, with the twin chimneys at Cockenzie finally coming down last autumn. The last remaining plant, Longannet, started generating in1970 and was then the largest coal-fired power station in Europe. Today it is still the second largest coal station in the UK and the third largest in Europe.
The station has been burning around four and half million tonnes of coal a year but less than 40% of the energy in the coal ends up as useful electricity, the rest goes up the chimney or warms up the waters of the Forth. And in recent years much of that coal has been imported from anywhere in the world with low prices.
A long-lived feat of engineering it may be but we will be well rid of the climate, environment and health impacts of Longannet when it shuts.
Coal is the dirtiest of the main fossil fuels and in a peak year Longannet was producing 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. This one single station was responsible for a fifth of all Scotland’s climate change emissions. Shutting it down will be great news in the struggle to reduce our emissions.
The brownish smog that frequently envelopes the upper Forth comes from a combination of emissions from Longannet, the plants at Grangemouth and traffic, with Longannet contributing 500 tonnes of fine particles a year. A 2013 report concluded that health impacts from Longannet shortened people’s lives, with 4,210 “life years” lost in 2010.
Globally, we know about fives times as much coal, oil and gas as we can possibly afford to burn to avoid catastrophic climate change. Most of it has got to stay where it is if we are to prevent disaster. The market is beginning to understand this for coal and around the world coal prices are collapsing, and coal companies are going out of business. Coal-fired plants are being mothballed in Germany where electricity companies were too slow to realise that the country’s massive increase in solar was going to make coal unviable. China, once famous for building coal stations at a tremendous rate is about to close down the last one in the Beijing area.
Of course closing Longannet will be difficult for the local economy, as major transitions always are. Many Scottish Power employees are being redeployed within the company, with a taskforce looking at the future of the area. Scottish Power owns large areas of land at and around the power station site and there are already proposals being made for a renewable energy development site.
But this thinking about what next is running to catch up with reality because we did not start early enough. We failed to have a planned transition when deep coal mining collapsed in the 1980s. We failed again in the 1990s with the closure of most of Scotland’s heavy industries. A lesson from Longannet is that we should recognise the writing on the wall for North Sea oil and gas, and start now to plan an orderly transfer of skilled workers and investment from oil and gas to renewable energy and energy efficiency, and at the same time show an international lead on climate change.
The closure of Longannet is a milestone of major European significance on our way to a fossil-free Scotland and, eventually, a fossil free world.
A version of the blog appeared in the Herald on 23rd March 2016. You can find out more about our Fossil Free Scotland campaign here: fossil free.scot