A proposed new gas-fired power station at Peterhead could run at the same time as the existing one, the energy giant behind it has admitted, prompting fears it could accelerate the climate crisis.
Scottish energy firm, SSE, submitted an application to Scottish ministers for a major new gas burning power station on the Aberdeenshire coast in February 2022.
The company claimed that this new plant – fitted with controversial carbon capture technology to reduce its climate impact – would replace the existing Peterhead gas station delivering “huge emissions reductions” from the overall site.
But green groups told The Ferret last year they feared the plant would operate alongside, rather than replace, the existing gas station at Peterhead, increasing emissions from a site which is already Scotland’s single biggest climate polluter.
In a response to queries about the application from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), SSE has now said the new plant could run “concurrently” with all three of the gas turbines which currently make up the existing plant.
If the existing and operational plants do run at full capacity at the same time – and carbon pollution is cut across the rest of the economy as planned – they would be responsible for more than a tenth of all the emissions produced across Scotland by 2034, the company has calculated.
Campaigners claimed SSE’s admission showed the Peterhead plans “risk increasing climate pollution for years to come, swallowing up huge chunks of our limited carbon budgets and endangering our climate commitments.” The Scottish Greens MSP, Maggie Chapman, said she had “serious concerns” about the new project.
SSE said its “intention remains” for the new plant to replace the old one and added it does not “foresee” the existing station running “unabated” beyond 2030.
‘Major adverse’ impact
The new ‘low carbon’ gas turbine at Peterhead would generate up to 910 megawatts of electricity, according to SSE and its project partner – the Norwegian state oil firm, Equinor.
As part of its original application, SSE outlined a “worst-case scenario” for the potential environmental impact of the new project. In February 2022, it said this “worst case” would be just one of the existing gas turbines at Peterhead running alongside the new project.
However, in its response to Sepa – dated to 10 February 2023 – the company claimed this scenario had now been updated because “recent security of supply concerns” meant the existing plant may have to operate at full capacity alongside the new plant.
This is a reference to the ongoing energy crisis – partly caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which has led to concerns about Scotland and the UK’s energy independence.
“The eventual phasing down and closure of the existing plant at Peterhead will be driven by a number of factors outside of SSE’s control, including UK and Scottish Government policy, need for capacity and economic performance,” the company’s response said.
It continued: “Whilst keeping the existing station operational at higher capacity for longer will mean it represents a greater proportion of the Scottish carbon budget; this will be a direct result of the need for generation capacity to maintain security of supply…”.
It is calculated in the response that if both plants operate simultaneously this would result in a considerable increase in climate emissions from Peterhead. This could have a “major adverse” impact on the Scottish carbon budget – the amount of carbon Scotland can emit without breaching its climate targets.
Both sites operating at the same time would mean that Peterhead alone would swallow up 10.7 per cent of the carbon budget by 2034, according to calculations in the response to SEPA.
Carbon capture controversy
The new plant at Peterhead will rely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to minimise its impact on the climate.
Carbon capture is designed to trap carbon dioxide (CO2) caused when fossil fuels – like gas – are burned for energy. This CO2 is then compressed and stored underground, which stops it entering the atmosphere and causing global warming.
But while it has support from the oil and gas industry and the Scottish Government, CCS is controversial and has been branded a ‘false solution’ to the climate crisis.
Activists argue the technology has a history of under-delivering and point out that very few planned CCS projects have come to fruition in recent years.
They have also disputed SSE’s predictions that 90 per cent of the CO2 produced by the new gas plant will be captured and stored. Research suggests that most new CCS projects only capture around 60 per cent, meaning that the plants they connect to still have a considerable climate impact.
The CCS project that the new plant at Peterhead is supposed to connect to, known as Acorn, was refused initial UK Government funding in 2021 – casting doubt over SSE and Equinor’s plans to have the project operational by 2027.
The UK Government has said that Acorn is a “leading contender” to be developed in a new funding round but has provided no detail on when an actual selection will be made and money allocated.
Alex Lee, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, called on the Scottish Government to “show real climate leadership” and reject the new Peterhead plant because of SSE’s “clear admission that it will increase climate harm”.
Lee said: “Sepa’s questions have forced SSE to admit that their fossil fuelled plans risk increasing climate pollution for years to come, swallowing up huge chunks of our limited carbon budgets and endangering our climate commitments.
“This admission is an enormous embarrassment for the energy giant and must force any supporters of the project to think again.
“The Scottish Government needs to re-think its energy strategy, end the fantasy that technologies like carbon capture are going to solve the climate crisis, and instead focus on delivering a just transition to a renewable energy economy.”
The Scottish Greens’ MSP for North East Scotland, Maggie Chapman, told The Ferret that carbon capture technology is “unproven and, all too often, it is used to increase fossil fuel extraction”.
“With the stark warnings of the [UN’s] IPCC and others, the most important thing we can do is cut our emissions and fast,” Chapman said.
“I would have serious concerns about any plan that could increase them at a time when we need to be decarbonising our economy and making a just transition to renewables.”
A spokesperson for SSE Thermal said: “As the Climate Change Committee outlined recently, gas CCS will be needed if we’re to achieve a decarbonised power system and, in turn, reduce the UK’s dependence on imported oil and gas.
“As such, it is a strategic priority for us to decarbonise our Peterhead site and our intention remains for the proposed CCS-equipped power station to replace the existing plant leading to a significant reduction in emissions.
“We have, as part of the planning process, outlined a scenario where security of supply issues lead to both stations running concurrently for a limited period up to 2030.
“However, we do not foresee the existing station running unabated beyond the end of the decade, with policy mechanisms in place to reduce emissions from the unabated plant and support investment in low-carbon alternatives.”
The Scottish Government said it would be “inappropriate to comment on a live planning application”.
A spokesperson said: “Carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) will be a vital part of our energy transition, helping drastically reduce emissions from electricity generation while ensuring flexible security of supply and also enabling negative emissions technologies.”
Cover image thanks to Colin_Hunter/iStock