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How to defeat dirty-coal in five easy steps (or years)

 
We joined many others in the protest against Hunterston coal-fired power station outside North Ayrshire CouncilWe joined many other in the protest against Hunterston coal-fired power station outside North Ayrshire Council © WWF

“When Scotland’s world leading climate laws were passed it was rightly hailed as a great example for the world to follow. Plans for coal-fired power plants that do not capture all the emissions from day one, put that leadership in question. The eyes of the world are watching and hoping that Scotland will reject this proposal”

Those were the words of WWF International President Yolanda Kakabadse back in 2010 after WWF had helped mobilise almost 10,000 people from 100 countries to object to plans for what would have been the first new coal-fired power station in the UK for 40 years.

It wasn’t the first, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time that we would reach out to our supporters in the UK and beyond in our five year fight against what we believed was one of the craziest, most planet-trashing and totally unnecessary energy proposals to be tabled for many years.

The scheme would have contributed to global climate change and run counter to Scotland’s world-leading climate change targets, made a mockery of Scotland’s ambitious plans to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables, and damaged valuable local wildlife sites.

Victories are rare

In my 15 years of campaigning I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of outright campaign victories I’ve witnessed. Sure, I’ve seen progress made on countless issues, but it’s just that this progress is usually incremental and mostly never clear cut. However, this was one of those rare moments where victory was total and unambiguous.

I’d like to be able to claim that I knew Peel Energy was on the verge of capitulating, but I didn’t. I’d like to say I knew for certain that we’d win the Public Inquiry, but I know from bitter experience you can be certain of nothing. So, the unexpected request from a journalist at The Guardian newspaper at 5:30pm for a reaction to the news that Peel Energy was fully abandoning their plans came as a surprise – but a really fantastic surprise.

So what exactly made the company decide to suddenly give up?

After all, they’d probably been working hard on their plan long before they and Dong Energy (their original partner) announced their intentions to the media in November 2008. They’d also hired the country’s top legal minds to fight the Public Inquiry on their behalf. They’d written strongly worded letters to us setting out why they were right, we were wrong and why the world would be a better place if only they got to build their power station. They’d even rejected our direct call to them a few months earlier, to cut their losses and shelve their plans after E.ON confirmed it had finally abandoned any remaining ambitions for new coal at Kingsnorth in Kent.

It was the economy stupid (perhaps)

In its bland official statement Peel Energy puts the decision down to “uncertainty surrounding the ability to secure the necessary financial investment” and the current “economic climate”. While cost may have been a contributing factor, my own assessment is that it had finally dawned on Peel that they were trying to push through the most unpopular planning application in Scotland – ever. With the local community opposed, the local council against it, over 22,000 objections and no support from politicians of any standing, walking away had to be the only sensible, face-saving option.

School boy errors

They also hadn’t help themselves over the years by first submitting, and then re-submitting, an application so totally riddled with errors and mistakes about pollution, carbon capture and wildlife that it undermined any credibility they might have once had. In one section of the application they even managed to mix up the majestic white-tailed sea eagle, which has a wingspan of 2.5 metres, with the humble wheatear, whose wings stretch less than one third of a metre!

I wouldn’t buy a used car off them, let alone let them build a power station” was how WWF reacted at the time.

Formidable coalition

Then of course there was the formidable alliance of groups we’d helped convene to fight the proposal. You’d either have to be a brave (or foolish) to want to take on the combined forces that lay behind the Say ‘No’ to Hunterston Campaign   made up of the Church of Scotland, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Planning Democracy, Oxfam, RSPB, Scottish Wildlife Trust, WDM and WWF.

For five years us we lobbied, petitioned, attended meetings, organised stunts, generated hundreds of articles in the media, mobilised our supporters, coordinated a campaign road-show across North Ayrshire, and complimented the excellent work being done on the ground by the local Communities Opposed to New Coal at Hunterston (CONCH) group. We also supported a legal challenge by a local resident and found the money to fight the, now aborted, Public Local Inquiry – which had been set for this October.

Clean energy on the rise

But perhaps Peel knew the writing is on the wall here in the UK for the kind of dirty coal plans they had in mind. This fact was underlined less than 48 hours after their announcment by new figures revealing that during 2011 Scotland is likely to have generated some 35 per cent of its electricity needs from renewable sources – almost double the level six years ago when they had first dreamed up their multi-billion pound coal-fired folly – putting this country well on the path to achieving its 100 per cent renewable target by 2020.

Whatever the real reason, one thing that is certain is that ever since the plans first saw the light of day, a combination of relentless, coordinated local, national and international action led by WWF and others have been slowly, but surely, hammering the nails into the coffin of this totally unwanted and unnecessary proposal. I really hope the lid now remains firmly shut on dirty coal not just here, but in every community where dirty coal is being touted as the solution.

What next?

Our fight will continue to get the message across to Government and to developers that we need to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, not climate-wrecking fossil fuels, and the fight is still on to reduce emissions from all sectors to allow delivery on our climate change targets. But for the time being, we’ll celebrate this victory for the climate!

So, what do you think? A stunning victory for the environment movement or did reality just catch up with Peel Energy? Please feel free to add a comment or question below…

And, for the geeky among you…

I couldn’t quite believe we’d been fighting this proposal for five years. But, I went back through my files and it’s true. So, do feel free to check-out my handy little time-line on the rise and demise of coal-fired plans at Hunterston.

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