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By Andrew Bond
Some months ago, in a conversation over lunch at a press event in Europe, Jim Nyquist, the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) president of Emerson Process Management, one of the leading North American process automation vendors, said current concerns about climate change and global warming would have little or no impact on public opinion or policy in the U.S. Not many weeks later, ABB, one of Europe’s leading process automation vendors, focused much of its North American user conference on how its technologies could contribute to mitigating global warming. Metaphorically rubbing his hands in anticipation, Dinesh Paliwal, its then-president of North American operations, summed up the company’s stance with the claim that on climate change, “We are in the sweet spot.”
Renewables such as wind power still account for less than 5% of UK power generation, but provide rich pickings for vendors such as Emerson which recently won the contract to provide a wide-area data gathering system for 19 active wind farms operated by npower renewables.
Fairly or unfairly, the contrast neatly sums up what many Europeans perceive as the difference between European and North American attitudes to global warming. It’s probably an unfair comparison, but it does tend to confirm European prejudices, best summed by the PR consultant for the European arm of another U.S. automation vendor, who said of his clients, “They just don’t get it.”
In truth, however, much of the difference between Europe and North America on these issues is in presentation rather than substance. Mankind’s contribution to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions may be accepted as fact in the public utterances of European politicians, opinion-makers and, increasingly, business leaders, but there are still plenty of sceptics or “climate change deniers” on Europe’s streets, and their numbers are as likely to increase as decrease when lectured on film by former U.S. vice president Al Gore. Moreover, while the justification for the major policy decisions on the two sides of the Atlantic may differ, the underlying motives and the policies themselves are remarkably similar.
Take the white paper published by the U.K. government at the end of May 2007, setting out its energy policy for the next two decades. It was presented primarily as a master plan for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but it could be more accurately described as a strategy for reducing dependence on imported energy in general and Russian gas in particular. That’s not so very different from the current U.S. government policy of promoting and subsidising biofuels to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Indeed, it’s helpful to governments of either or no persuasion that most of the decisions on energy policy that are dictated by realpolitik can be presented with a suitably green veneer.
That U.K. white paper may well have a wider significance, marking as it does the moment when the climate-change community recognized the full implications of its commitment to reductions in emissions. Thus far the U.K. has led Europe in reducing, or at least reducing the rate of increase, of its emissions of CO2, setting domestic targets which go beyond the requirements of the Kyoto treaty. That requires the world’s developed countries—well, most of them!—to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 5.2% below 1990 levels over the period 2008 to 2012. E.U. member states agreed to an overall 8% reduction of which the U.K.’s contribution was a 12.5% reduction on 1990 levels for a “basket” of six greenhouse gases. In a fit of enthusiasm, the U.K. government set its own objective of a 20% reduction on 1990 levels of CO2 by 2010.
ABB supplied the process control system for this 260 million liter/yr bioethanol plant at Zeitz, Germany, its first major Profibus-PA installation. Courtesy of ABB.
Although that goal now looks unlikely, the U.K. is nevertheless one of the few countries on track to meet its Kyoto obligations, even if that’s not quite as admirable as it might sound. In fact, the reduction is almost entirely due to a massive transfer of generating capacity from coal to natural gas, which was already under way before Kyoto had even been contemplated.
The “dash for gas” saw the construction of a fleet of relatively low-cost, quick-to-construct and easy-to-locate combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants and the closure of large numbers of older and smaller coal-fired stations. At a time when gas was cheap and the U.K. was a net exporter, that looked like a smart policy. Ten years on, the U.K. is a net importer, dependent in part on a long, complex and vulnerable umbilical stretching from the North Sea to the far side of the Urals. That, as much as climate change, has triggered the latest rethink.
Whereas 20 years ago the bulk of U.K. electricity came from coal, today coal’s share is only a third, and gas accounts for nearly 40%. Nuclear power continues to provide a 20% base load, but renewables, despite the hype, still account for just 5%. Moreover, the U.K. government concedes that its own target of 20% from renewables by 2020 is unlikely to be met. More important, however, is the fact that all but one of the current nuclear plants are due to be withdrawn from service by 2023, as are most of the existing coal-fired plants. It’s this looming gap which has led the U.K. government to conclude that the British public will be prepared to set aside its long-standing aversion to further nuclear investment if the alternative is having Vladimir Putin’s thumbs on its collective windpipe.