Learning about Climate Change from Local History
Over the past couple of years, a number of staff from Culture Warrington have completed the Carbon Literacy Training delivered by Museums Development Northwest. As part of the course, we pledged to complete a number of ‘green initiatives’ that would directly help to reduce Culture Warrington’s carbon footprint, whilst also demonstrating our commitment as an organisation, to environmental sustainability.
If you visited one of our recent exhibitions ‘Fiddlers Ferry: The Cloud Factory’, you will no doubt have had time to think about some of the BIG environmental issues that we are tackling both locally and globally, perhaps even wondering where will we be in 10 years time? One of our roles at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery is to educate people about how to care for and preserve their local heritage and the Fiddlers Ferry site as one of the region’s main energy supplies, is a great example of how looking at our local heritage we can begin to learn more about the effects of Climate Change.
Today we are using a newly acquired model of the Fiddlers Ferry site now part of the museum’s collections, to form a focus for wider discussion on the Climate Emergency and what we can all do to help.
What is the Climate Emergency?
There is no longer any doubt that our planet is experiencing a climate emergency. This means that there are serious and urgent problems that are being caused, or likely to be caused, by changes in the World’s weather. These changes are brought about by human activity as we increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Climate Emergency is the result of Climate Change.
What does this have to do with Fiddlers Ferry Power Station?
Standing on the north bank of the River Mersey, Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station is a familiar sight that has dominated the Penketh landscape for over 50 years, despite the fact it was only designed to last 25! For those of you who perhaps are not local to the area, Fiddler’s Ferry power station stands on the north bank of the River Mersey, in the parish of Penketh. It was built with four coal-fired 500 Megawatt turbo-generators and was one of several 2000 Megawatt stations constructed by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) during the 1960s in order to meet the growing demand for electricity. Initial work on the station began in 1963 and final commissioning began in 1971. Originally intended to last just 25 years, the station has defied all expectations to last twice as long as anticipated.
The size of the turbo-generators, two and a half times more powerful than anything previously in operation, meant that large quantities of cooling water and coal were required. The River Mersey supplied 195 million litres of cooling water per day, whilst the northern coalfields provided most of the coal. To keep such large generators running a whole range of secondary equipment was also required such as a coal handling plant with rail delivery system, an ash handling plant, cooling systems, instrumentation and so on. Coal was originally supplied to the station in trainloads of around 1100 tonnes, with 100,000 tonnes delivered every week. The station consumed up to 19,600 tonnes of coal a day, whilst any surplus coal was put out to stock.
During the UK miner’s strike of 1984-1985 Fiddler’s Ferry remained operational, albeit at a reduced output, by importing supplies of coal from the Nottinghamshire coalfields which did not support the strike action. The aftermath of the strike saw the progressive closure of the UK’s coal pits, creating a devastating effect on many communities. From this point on Fiddler’s Ferry was forced to start importing coal from Scotland and from overseas, thus increasing the station’s carbon emissions.
How does burning coal impact the environment?
From heating our homes to filling up our cars, burning fossil fuels releases the greenhouse gases that increase global temperatures.
We have already seen the effects in the UK, with devastating floods and torrential downpours. People are rightly concerned, with recent reports showing that if we fail to limit global warming the floods and fires we have seen around the world in 2021 will get more frequent and fiercer, crops will be more likely to fail, and sea levels will rise driving mass migration as millions are forced from their homes.
If global temperatures rise too high we risk reaching climatic tipping points like the melting of arctic permafrost – releasing millennia of stored greenhouse gases – meaning we could lose control of our climate for good.
But the good news is that there is still a path to avoid catastrophic climate change. By 2050 the world has to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible, with the small amount of remaining emissions absorbed through natural carbon sinks like forests, and new technologies like carbon capture. If we can achieve this, global emissions of greenhouse gases will be ‘net zero’.
Delivering this target requires urgent global action, including retiring petrol and diesel engines from all cars, and halting deforestation.
An important step is closing all coal-fired power plants like Fiddler’s Ferry as soon as possible. Of all the ways we generate electricity, coal is by far the most harmful to the climate. Coal power creates 80 times more planet-heating carbon dioxide than the same amount of wind power, even when you factor in the energy used to build the turbines. In 2015 the UK announced it would close all coal-fired power plants by 2025, the first major country to do so.
Home to a Nature Reserve: Protecting wildlife and habitats
Fiddler’s Ferry power station is an important natural habitat – not only are the ash lagoons an officially designated Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) but a large part of the site is a salt marsh habitat which is home to various species of birds which are of conservation importance – including skylarks, starlings and lapwings.
Did you know that not only did Fiddlers Ferry Power Station is home to a Nature Reserve with residents including peregrine falcons, carp, brent geese, herring gulls and green sandpipers.
The boiler house of Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station has been the home of a breeding pair of peregrine falcons. Peregrine falcons – which usually nest on crags, rock faces and sea cliffs – found the tall building an ideal and safe nesting site to rear young. Peregrines are a Schedule 1 listed species of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Employees at Fiddler’s Ferry worked closely with the RSPB to ensure that the pair were allowed to flourish and, during 2017, the pair successfully raised a chick.
In the late 1980s the Central Electricity Generating Board agreed to the construction of a fish farm on the Fiddler’s Ferry site. It consisted of a series of fish tanks fed by water from the cooling tower ponds. The fish were moved from tank to tank as they grew in size and were ultimately sold to restaurants. Unfortunately demand declined and the Fiddler’s Ferry Fish Farm closed in 1999.
The team at Fiddler’s Ferry have recently completed a three year project led by the Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust, to undertake habitat monitoring, management and improvement on the site. The project aimed to bring the Upper Mersey Estuary into good ecological management and increase species diversity over the three-year period. It’s part of the Trust’s ambition to create a 28.5 hectare (70.4 acre) nature reserve running either side of the Mersey Gateway.
Brent Geese have been recorded at Fiddler’s Ferry occasionally over the past few decades. The maximum count of four birds in November 1984 could be a small flock of feral birds that had escaped.
Herring Gulls are frequently recorded at Fiddler’s Ferry, usually in large numbers, especially during the winter. The largest number of Herring Gulls are observed during October and November with a peak count of 3,000 recorded in November and December 1996.
Green Sandpiper are passage migrants which stop off at Fiddler’s Ferry in September. A few are recorded on the site most years, although there has been a decline since 1997.
Preserving the history of the Power Station
When the UK government announced the closure of all coal-fired power stations in 2015 it presented heritage organisations with something of a problem. Power Stations have historic and architectural interest but they are unlikely to become listed buildings —in fact most power stations are prohibited from being listed.
The result is that a number of heritage organisations have come forward to preserve as much as they can of each power station’s heritage as it is decommissioned and, ultimately, destroyed.
In the case of Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station a group including Historic England, SSE’s own Heritage Team, Culture Warrington, the National Science Museums Group and Warrington Borough Council have worked together over the past 3 years to record as much as possible about the site to ensure future generations are aware of its legacy.
The station was operated by various companies following the privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1990. Powergen, one of the private companies formed by the breakup of the CEGB ran the station between 1990 and 1999 and were followed by two American owners – Edison Mission Energy (1999-2001) and American Electric Power (2001-2004), the latter introducing the practice of “co-firing” – burning a mixture of coal and biomass – at the station. The station’s fifth and final owner, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) took over in 2004 after buying the station for £136 million.
Less than 2 months later the National Coal Board announced the closure of 20 collieries putting 20,000 miners out of work. A miner’s strike was launched on 12th March and 100,000 miners came out on strike, only the Nottinghamshire coal mines remaining open. The strike lasted almost a year, and Fiddler’s Ferry were forced to import coal from the remaining Nottinghamshire coalfields by train.
The aftermath of the miner’s strike saw the closure of most of Britain’s coal mines, creating a devastating effect on many communities. In 1984 there were 170 collieries in the UK employing 190,000 workers. Today in 2022 there are less than 20, employing around 5,000.
Following the end of the strike the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that industrial action could never again put the electricity supply at risk and instructed all UK power stations to store enough supplies to run for 6 months in case of industrial action. The containers used to hold these materials became known as “Maggie’s Tanks”.
Towards the end of the 1980s the UK government privatised the electricity industry, breaking the Central Electricity Generating Board up into 4 private companies. One of them, Powergen, became responsible for Fiddler’s Ferry.
Privatisation and deregulation brought about wide-ranging changes to working practices at Fiddler’s Ferry. Towards the end of the decade the station changed hands again as a US company called Edison Mission Energy took over.
Although the owners Edison Mission Energy invested heavily in the station they sold it in 2001 after just 2 years following heavy losses in the USA as a result of a drought.
The new owners were another US company called American Electric Power (AEP). AEP were the first to introduce biomass co-firing at Fiddler’s Ferry and the station started to burn renewable wood pellets alongside coal, thus reducing its dependency on fossil fuels.
Unfortunately a recession in the USA meant that in 2004 AEP decided to sell Fiddler’s Ferry to its fifth and final owners – Scottish Southern Energy (SSE).
Some were surprised by the purchase, as SSE were not specialists in coal-fired power stations, concentrating mainly on gas, water and wind power. Nevertheless an unexpected rise in the price of gas in the late 2000s resulted in a sudden demand for coal-fired electricity generation.
Since acquiring Fiddler’s Ferry in 2004 Scottish Southern Energy (SSE) have invested £350 million in the plant. Two of the most important improvements involved installing a system which removes 94% of the sulphur dioxide from the station’s emissions and replacing the ageing steam pipes.
Biomass is material made from crops or plant by-products that can be burnt as fuel instead of coal.
Biomass has the advantage that, unlike coal, it is a renewable fuel supply that can be replaced at the same rate it is consumed. Burning biomass alongside – or instead of – coal means that less “new” carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere for each kilowatt hour of electricity that is produced.
Fiddler’s Ferry started experimenting with burning biomass alongside coal in 2002, a process known as co-firing. By 2006 Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station was one of the biggest generators of green energy from biomass in the UK.
Fiddler’s Ferry was originally designed to burn coal from the UK. However tighter environmental controls plus the relatively cheap cost of importing coal meant that for the past few decades it has mainly burnt coal from overseas.
Following the closure of many of Britain’s coal mines in the 1980s and 1990s some of the coal burned at Fiddler’s Ferry was still supplied from Scottish mines, but most was imported from around the world. Coal was purchased from Australia, Columbia, Indonesia, USA, South Africa and Russia and transported to England and then onto Fiddler’s Ferry via train from Liverpool Docks.
Mining and processing coal before transporting it hundreds of miles to be burnt at Fiddler’s Ferry obviously increased the station’s carbon emissions and added to its environmental impact
How else can we get our energy if we don’t use fossil fuels?
There are alternative sources of energy which are renewable and don’t cause harmful emissions.
Solar Power-This is a clean energy source, quite simply it’s storing the Sun’s energy and using it to produce electricity.
Hydrogen-Hydrogen can be produced from diverse domestic resources with the potential for near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Once produced, hydrogen generates electrical power in a fuel cell, emitting only water vapor and warm air. It holds promise for growth in both the transportation energy sectors.
Wind Power-A clean energy which uses the wind to turn generators which produce electricity. The biggest drawback is that the turbines need to be sited away from urban areas (where there is the greatest demand for energy) in open countryside or off shore. The sheer number of turbines needed, plus their size, has caused them to be viewed in a negative way by many people.
Hydro Power-This is generated by the natural flow of water courses, it is one of the oldest known sources of energy that was harnessed by people. It is clean, contributes to flood control and irrigation and is possible wherever there is a natural flow of water.
Nuclear Power-Whilst this source of energy has its benefits ( it’s renewable and emission-free) it also has its drawbacks including high operating costs, the danger of a meltdown and the transportation, storage and ultimate disposal of toxic waste.
Geothermal Energy-This is the energy that is generated from the heat within the Earth. Hot rocks in the Earth’s core emit heat which generates steam and pressure and thus comes out of the Earth’s surface. This steam is used to run turbines and produce electricity. There is sometimes opposition to this source of energy due to the process of drilling which effects the local environment, plus there is a risk that potentially lethal gases may be released during the drilling.
Tidal Power-71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water bodies which are mainly seas and oceans. The tides fall and rise because of the Moon and Sun’s gravitational pull. There is potential for an endless supply of power, but this is a relatively untapped resource.
How can you reduce your Carbon Footprint: Reduce Reuse and Recycle
One of the key points to remember when looking at reducing your carbon footprint is what can you as an individual do? Trying to tackle such a huge problem can seem overwhelming, but it is the small changes that we make in our everyday lives, that actually make the BIGGER changes!
- Eat less meat and dairy – you don’t have to go full on vegan, just try to reduce the amount of animal products in your diet. Plant-based food is not only kinder to the environment (Less land and water use, no greenhouse gas emissions etc.), it’s also healthier to eat more fruit and vegetables and we can get all the protein we need from meat-free and dairy-free alternatives.
- Use public transport as an alternative to driving, whenever you can, and try not to make short trips in the car – walk or cycle instead.
- Cut down your air-miles, air-travel is a major cause of carbon emissions.
- Switch your energy provider to one which provides renewable energy, also make sure your house has good insulation and try to reduce the amount of energy you use around the home (saving money is also a big reason to do this).
- Cut down on the amount of paper and plastic you waste (avoid plastic packaging as much as you can along with single-use plastic and non-recyclable materials), reuse as much as possible and recycle others.
- Buy second hands things from online retailers or freecycle sites. This cuts out any power and transport miles needed to make and sell brand new items.
We hope that this blog has provided an interesting insight into how we can look to our local heritage for lessons in how to care for our environment better and each in our own way, help to tackle the Climate Emergency.
(Written by Hannah White with contributions from Craig Sherwood and Mike Roberts)