eggborough power station

The coal truth: how a major energy source lost its power in Britain

eggborough power station
Eggborough power station in North Yorkshire is one of just eight coal plants left in the country. Photograph: Chris Warren/Alamy

Coal supplied just 2% of power in the first half of 2017, marking a steep decline from just five years ago, according to analysis by Imperial College

July 19, 2017 — Once the engine of the Industrial Revolution and employer of nearly 1.2 million people, the fall of old king coal in the UK has been precipitous.

Only five years ago, the fuel was generating more than 40% of the UK’s electricity, but new analysis by Imperial College London reveals coal supplied just 2% of power in the first half of 2017.

More than 1,000 deep mines and nearly 100 surface ones operated until the early 1960s – today there are just 10 tiny mines left. Half a century ago it was the UK’s main source of energy, but last year windfarms provided more power.

This week, it emerged that ministers are disbanding a government and industry body created to secure the long-term future of coal power and mining, in the latest sign of the dirty fuel’s rapid demise. The 11-year-old UK Coal Forum will be wound down because it “no longer serves a purpose”, said Richard Harrington, the new energy minister.

Pollution laws and carbon taxes have forced large, ageing plants to close in the past five years, with three major ones closing in 2016 alone.

None have ceased operation this year but coal supplies so little power today that in April the National Grid reported the UK had gone the first day without the fossil fuel since Thomas Edison opened the country’s first coal power station at Holborn, London, in 1882. In 2017 so far, there have been more than 300 hours without coal.

The fortunes of coal, once a bedrock of the economy, contrast sharply with atomic power and the growth of renewables. In February, ministers re-established the Nuclear Industry Council, an industry-government group, to support their ambition of a fleet of new reactors. Helped by government subsidies, wind, solar and biomass now generate a quarter of the UK’s power, up from small amounts a decade ago.

Coal’s fall from grace is without parallel in the UK, experts said.

“It’s unprecedented, the speed at which it declined,” said Iain Staffell of Imperial College. “We’ve never had anything like this. In the 1990s there was the dash for gas, and that probably was a quarter of the speed of this.”

He added that last year’s 66% fall in coal generation marked the largest annual switch in fuel for power – even greater than the 33% decline in coal power during the 1984 miners’ strike.

After the closures last year, there are now eight coal power stations left in the UK, from Drax and Eggborough in Yorkshire to Aberthaw in south Wales. Most employ relatively few staff, typically between 100 and 200.

Rather than running all year as they used to, they now fill the gaps in the energy system when output from wind turbines and solar panels is low. Almost all have secured subsidies worth hundreds of millions of pounds to provide backup power in coming winters, under a new scheme known as the capacity market.

While the government has said it will phase out coal by 2025, many think the worsening economics of coal mean the last plant will close before that – in 2022.

“We will probably get to the position of just a couple of stations left reasonably soon,” said Staffell, who predicts that the three coal-fired units at Drax in Yorkshire, being the most modern and efficient, will be the last to be switched off.

Dorothy Thompson, chief executive of Drax Group, knows the writing is on the wall and is diversifying into gas and more biomass. “We believe we are creating interesting options for our coal units to either be increased renewable generation or flexible gas generation to support a low-carbon future,” she told the Guardian.

Such a swift decline of coal in the UK was not always inevitable. As recently as 2009, the then climate secretary, Ed Miliband, saw “clean coal” power stations, which captured and stored their carbon emissions, as a central plank of the UK’s energy future.

But carbon capture in the UK never took off, and the EU’s large combustion plant directive, designed to tackle air pollutants, killed off several ageing plants between 2012 and 2015.

Then in 2015 came the ratcheting up of the UK’s carbon tax, which overnight made profitable plants loss-making and led to the three plants shutting last year, including Scotland’s last coal power station, Longannet.

Some still think the government’s phase-out deadline will slip because of security-of-supply concerns.

“The most likely scenario is we’ll get to the point of 2025 and we realise we haven’t built the gas plants that we said we would, and we’re going to have to keep these coal plants operating anyway,” said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive of the World Coal Association.

But most, including the operators of the last coal power stations, acknowledge the end is coming.

The decline in coal power plants has been mirrored by a fall in mines. After the closure in 2015 of the UK’s last big deep mine, Kellingley colliery in Yorkshire, there are now just three underground and seven surface operations. Most are small, employing 20-30 people.

The trajectory of UK coal production is fast heading towards zero, down 75% between 2012 and 2016.

“If the last mines shut, we would be possibly the first major industrial country to leave carbon resources in the ground, unburnt,” said Staffell. “Admittedly, you’d say it was obvious because what we’ve got left is uncompetitive because we’ve got deep seams.

“But still, symbolically, it’s one of those things where we could point to other countries and say: ‘Follow our lead.’”


guardian_64 by Adam Vaughan | The Guardian