I've been writing a lot about how the future of fossil fuels is looking shakier by the minute. In the UK, however, where solar abroad appears more favored than solar at home, the picture is not quite so clear.
On the one hand, there's been one gigantic victory: The UK's ruling Conservatives have now committed to close all remaining coal-fired power plants by 2025 at the latest, unless the industry can finally make headway on Carbon Capture and Storage. (Coincidentally, a meeting of 34 of the world's biggest economies also just announced they will phase out public financing of coal plants abroad.)
While this may seem like a huge deal—and certainly underlines the case that investing in coal is riskier than ever—clean energy advocates welcomed the news in decidedly muted fashion.And that's because, as detailed over at The Guardian, it's part of a much broader "reset" of energy policy that's informed by the notion that the balance has swung too far in favor of green policies. This reset includes a rapid scaling back of support for solar and on-shore wind, a ramping up of natural gas—meaning Britain will be locked in to a carbon-generating, centralized energy system for decades to come—as well as an increase in new nuclear generation too.
It does also include only conditional support for offshore wind, based on the conditions that the industry can bring costs down in the near future. Needless to say, in a world where fossil fuel subsidies don't seem to receive the same scrutiny that renewables subsidies do, the Conservatives were open about the fact that this pivot to nuclear and gas will still require considerable financial support from the Government.
This being Britain, opponents of the Government reset were quick to offer analogies related to booze. Caroline Lucas, Member of Parliament for the Green Party, put it this way:
“This switch from coal to gas is like trying to go dry by switching from vodka to super-strength cider – it entirely fails to seriously address the real challenge at hand. Investing in renewables and energy conservation would be far more effective economically, environmentally and in terms of energy security. We must begin weaning ourselves off gas as quickly as possible.”
Meanwhile Al Gore was a little more forgiving, claiming that the coal phase out was "demonstrating the type of leadership that nations around the world must take in order to craft a successful agreement in Paris and solve the climate crisis”, but also noting that he was confused by government cuts to renewables.
Given how quickly renewables are already becoming cost competitive with coal and gas, and how renewables are already causing fossil fuel generators to sit idle and become more expensive, we may end up in an interesting position where government-supported, carbon-spewing gas power plants find themselves being out-competed and undermined by subsidy-free renewables in the decades to come.
Gas may be cleaner than coal. But that doesn't mean it'll stay on top forever.