Last Wednesday, at 11am, another giant landmark in the history of UK fossil-fuel power crashed to the ground. Never mind a landmark, this was also a giant seamark that aided navigation at the start of the Thames and Medway estuaries for hundreds of vessels every day. Its end came with two huge bangs that juddered the earth for miles around. The first was the explosion itself. The second was when the massive top section of the chimney of Grain Power Station – the second tallest in the UK after Drax Power Station in Yorkshire – finally hit the ground. This was in the same week as two other big fossil fuel/climate change protests made international news: Black Lives Matter dramatically shut-down London City Airport stating ‘Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis‘; in the USA the Standing Rock Sioux resisted private security company’s pepper-spray and attacks by dogs, while preventing destruction of their burial and cultural sites caused by the North Dakota oil Pipeline.
Meanwhile, from the seawall on the Isle of Grain in North Kent, we were waiting for a demolition of fossil fuel infrastructure, with hundreds of others. It was startling to reflect that, over the 25 years of living round here, fossil-fuelled power station after fossil-fuelled power station has closed, many in the past few years. Northfleet, Richborough, Littlebrook, Grain, Kingsnorth in Kent. And across the Thames in Essex, Tilbury. Spectacular demolitions are following one by one. Surely Kingsnorth’s chimney blowdown in 2017 is a moment to commemorate (see below)?
The politics behind these closures is complicated. This is not a story of successive UK governments turning their back on coal and oil-fired electricity generation for environmental reasons. But it is a story of ageing infrastructure, of outmoded technologies. It is a story of EU-regulated environmental standards. And it is a story of several generations of people’s and NGOs protests against coal, oil and gas on grounds of acid rain, climate change, despoilation of lands, homes and water courses, and climate justice. It’s also a story of job losses and the question of a just transition into new employment for those former power station workers.
On the infrastructure front, in these times of privately-owned power generation, energy companies and investors have been unwilling to put up the cash to fund the major upgrades that would meet the EU’s emission-controlling ‘Large Combustion Plant Directive’. Moreover, proposals to build brand new coal-fired power stations on sites of the old, such as by E.ON for Kingsnorth down the road from Grain, have been met with large-scale local and national direct action. Both Greenpeace in 2007, and the massive Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth in 2008 severely disrupted E.ON, and put the issue on the local, national and international media coverage. This continued the work of previous direct action climate camps at Heathrow Airport and Drax Power Station. By 2009, E.ON had backed down and in 2013, Kingsnorth was decommissioned.
There are many points to be made about what this apparent retreat from coal and oil-fired power generation means and how the alternatives are playing out in terms of social and environmental justice: liquid natural gas from Algeria now arrives at the BP terminal neighbouring the defunct Grain power station; arguments rage over the revival of nuclear power in the example of Hinckley Point in Somerset, and fracking is being resisted in Kent as it is almost everywhere where it is proposed in the UK; plus there’s an upsurge in people organising and campaigning for democratically controlled, clean energy such as Switched On London.
But for now, let’s simply mark the demolition of these old fossil-fuelled power stations. And think about it in the context of growing international movements against the devastation and social injustice caused by fossil fuels, as seen in North Dakota and in London City Airport. Giants can fall. And also think about it in the context of what employment in an energy sector based on renewables looks like.
For now, here’s the spectacular demise of the two chimneys of Scotland’s coal-fired Cockenzie Power Station 1967 – 2013, demolished in front of a huge land and sea audience in 2015.
Kingsnorth’s chimney finally tumbles in 2017, 9 years after the Camp for Climate Action, 10 years after Greenpeace’s chimney action, and 47 years after it opened in 1970. The exact date is to be confirmed, but on all sorts of grounds this will be an occasion to commemorate.