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2020 / 2021 Edition

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The Big Clean-Up

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Coal is the most carbon-rich of all fossil fuels but a range of new technologies are being developed and used to reduce the environmental impact of coal-fired power stations. With the advent of clean coal technology, and rising oil and gas costs, can the UK coal industry clean up its image and become the future of British energy?

The last 25 years have not been kind to the British coal industry. From the miners’ strike in 1984/85 and the nationwide pit closures that followed to the so-called ‘dash for gas’ in the 1990s, what was once a thriving industry has now become a sector slowly in decline.

During its heyday the industry had more than 200 pits employing tens of thousands of miners. Today, however, there are just six large deep mines and 45 smaller opencast sites employing around 6,000 people.

These figures may paint a grim picture for British coal mining but there is genuine optimism about the future of the industry, which last year produced 18.6 million tonnes of coal while imports reached a record high level of 50.3 million tonnes (see table 1). Overall coal consumption in 2006, at 68.2 million tonnes, was 10.3% higher than in 2005.

The single biggest factor contributing to the growing demand for coal is coal-fired power generation; last year coal burn at UK power stations rose to nearly 58 million tonnes, the highest level in a decade.

‘Coal use for power generation in recent years has exceeded most expectations, not least the predictions of the Government's own experts,’ said Stuart Oliver, spokesman for UK Coal, Britain’s largest coal producer. ‘With gas prices trebling, coal is the cheapest fuel for power generation.’

Each year coal-fired power stations generate over 35% of the UK’s electricity, and as oil and gas prices increase further, coal – a cheaper and plentiful alternative – will continue to play a significant role in electricity generation, both domestically and globally, as seen in China and India.

However, because of their high levels of carbon emissions, Britain’s ageing coal-fired power plants are considered to be environmentally unfriendly. As part of the Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD), which introduces emission limit values (ELVs) for coal-fired power stations from January 2008, 8GW of existing coal-fired capacity will close by 2015.

What is worrying is that this loss, along with the planned closures of several nuclear and oil-fired power stations, could lead to an energy shortfall of as much as 32GW (the UK currently has an installed electricity-generating capacity of 77GW). It might seem unthinkable but an energy crisis in Britain could happen, unless the capacity problems are addressed rapidly.

As the Government reviews its energy strategy to determine the necessary level of investment and balance between gas, coal, oil, nuclear and renewable energy sources, a major programme to build new electricity power plants will be needed over the next 20 years.

Reducing carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency, of course, remain key parts of the Government’s policy to address climate change and move towards a low-carbon society – but where does the UK coal industry fit in? As coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel on the planet, how can coal be the future of British energy? And are the country’s mines in any position to meet extra demand?

‘There are proven coal reserves of around 300 million tonnes, however, total economically extractable reserves could be well in excess of 1 billion tonnes – enough to last for decades,’ said David Brewer, director general of the Confederation of UK Coal Producers (CoalPro). ‘Indigenous coal can provide some real benefits to the UK’s future energy mix but we have not been able to produce the amount that the industry, as a whole, is capable of achieving, simply because planning guidance covering coal extraction is rigorous in the extreme.

[img_assist|nid=12297|title=Opencast coal site|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=266|height=200]‘A major obstacle is the Government’s planning guidance for surface mine applications – MPG3 – which incorporates a ‘presumption against’ approval. Since its introduction in 1999, this has caused extreme difficulty for coal producers in getting planning permissions for new surface mine schemes. As a result, the presumption against has curtailed coal output from opencast mines in the UK from a potential 15 million tonnes a year to a current 8 to 9 million tonnes.’

In 2005, a similar presumption against opencast coal extraction was enforced in Scotland, and Mr Brewer is concerned that the surface mine output north of the border – which presently exceeds 7 million tonnes a year – will again fall substantially.

‘The DBERR, formerly the DTI, recognizes the industry’s position and it understands our frustration that the UK has the potential to extract more coal,’ he continued. ‘But the lack of support shown by the Government as a whole to at least mitigate the impact of the existing planning constraints means there is a limit to what the DBERR can do on its own.

‘All the industry seeks is a level-playing field with other forms of mineral extraction. After all, if new power stations are expected to use more coal to meet Britain’s energy demands, it makes sense for coal to be mined in Britain where it can be environmentally and economically carried out.’

Indeed, at a time when energy prices for power generation are forecast to rise year on year, indigenous coal provides both price certainty over increasing international market volatility and a secure supply from local sources.

Producing more domestic coal for local power stations also helps to reduce the carbon footprint created by the high imports of coal already coming in from Russia and South Africa. CoalPro has recently calculated that the annual carbon emissions associated with the transportation of coal from Russia to the UK market is almost equivalent to 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by burning that coal in British coal-fired power plants.

With green issues high on the Government’s current agenda, new technologies are continuously being developed to improve the efficiency of coal, meet the environmental challenges and increase the ways in which coal can be utilized.

‘Developing and employing such technologies is crucial if coal is to have a major role in meeting the UK’s future energy demands,’ Mr Brewer explained. ‘We naturally support the drive to cleaner forms of coal power generation. One of the environmental challenges for us is to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon coal technologies that will allow Britain to benefit from coal-fired power generation while reducing carbon emissions.’

There are three main methods for reducing carbon emissions from coal-fired power generation: improving coal-fired power station efficiency; co-firing coal with biomass; and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Around the world, developers of new coal-fired power plants are using the latest boilers, improved turbines and most advanced gasifiers to increase the efficiencies of their stations. So-called ‘supercritical boilers’, which operate at high temperature and pressure, are said to have efficiency levels of around 42-46%, compared with conventional boilers, which have efficiencies of about 35%.

Improving the efficiency of boilers used in coal-fired power stations reduces carbon emissions, as less coal is needed to generate the heat energy that turns the steam turbines powering the electricity generators.

Recent industry figures have shown that the increased efficiency of supercritical coal-fired power plants reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 20%, compared with traditional coal-fired stations using old-style boilers. Supercritical boilers can also combine their fuel with biomass, which could cut carbon emissions by a further 20%.

More than 400 supercritical power stations are in operation worldwide, and many more are now being built in China, the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. ‘It has been said that one or two new coal-fired power plants come into operation every week in China,’ said Mr Brewer.

‘But modern Chinese coal-fired stations are now highly efficient as they use state-of-the-art low-carbon technologies to significantly reduce their carbon emissions. Given the rapid industrialization of China, the Chinese Government knows it has a problem and is not sitting around when it comes to incorporating new technology.’

Here in the UK, proposals for new coal-fired power plants with emission-reducing technology have been announced. Doosan Babcock Energy, Siemens, and Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) have joined forces to develop a CCS-ready 500MW supercritical plant by 2012. The retrofit project, to be installed at SSE’s Ferrybridge Power Station in Yorkshire, would cut around 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year, but more significantly the plant’s use of CCS equipment could save a further 1.7 million tonnes of CO2.

A three-step process, CCS involves: capturing the carbon dioxide emitted from power plants; transporting it (usually via pipelines); and finally storing the CO2 in secure geological formations, such as depleted gas fields and oil reservoirs. As yet, no commercial-scale CCS power station has been developed in any country, although some key elements of the individual stages of the process have been demonstrated.

Like many UK energy suppliers, CoalPro is backing the technology and believes CCS, if properly regulated, could be an important weapon in the battle against climate change. The only major obstacle standing in the way of deploying CCS in newly built coal-fired power stations – either supercritical or Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) – is cost.

‘There is a real need for the Government to find ways to incentivize clean coal technologies, bearing in the mind the huge costs involved in building higher efficiency coal- or gas-fired power plants combined with CCS,’ said Mr Brewer.

‘The Government’s announcement of a competition to construct Britain’s first full-scale carbon capture and storage facility earlier this year represents an important step to ensure that we start to learn more about these technologies as soon as possible. We need to understand how the technology works in large, integrated projects so that we can bring costs down and develop it for deployment worldwide to tackle CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel power plants and other major sources of carbon dioxide.’

[img_assist|nid=12298|title=Zero emission power plant|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=431|height=200]Many of the industrialized nations, including Germany, Australia and Japan, are already investing heavily into the research and development of cleaner coal technologies. One of the biggest and most expensive is the FutureGen programme – a $1 billion (£580 million) international collaborative project to build the world’s first coal-fuelled, near-zero emissions power plant in the US, by integrating an IGCC electricity generator with hydrogen production and CCS.

Cleaner power generation – driven by investment and collaboration – is essential if coal is to have a pivotal energy role in a world built around sustainability. UK Coal believe the development of clean coal technologies would be a significant boost for British coal producers as it would demonstrate to them and to the planners, who make the decisions on where new mining capacity is to be approved, that coal has a recognized role within the Government’s diversified energy portfolio.

Of course, UK coal reserves are in abundance, and the market and production prospects for opencast and deep-mined coal are better than for many years, but support from the Government, both moral and in policy terms, is vitally important.

The barriers to clean coal technologies being embraced and pursued are not technical issues. The technologies have been proven to work and will improve further, propelling energy suppliers, coal producers, unions, equipment suppliers and some governments around the world into a new era of cleaner and more efficient use of coal.

But for this to happen in the UK, the talk of cleaner coal has to be translated into action. First, a regulatory framework is required to secure the long-term future of coal-fired power generation. Coal suppliers in Britain are facing investment decisions to access new coal reserves, which need certainty over income to allow the investments to be made.

Secondly, as Mr Brewer has pointed out, more indigenous coal should be extracted. Opencast sites and deep-mined coal reserves represent reliable and secure sources of indigenous energy. It is, therefore, crucial that a relationship between the energy suppliers and coal producers is created, which recognizes the need for a secure domestic coal supply as part of the UK’s future energy mix. The biggest challenge, however, remains the removal of the presumption against within the mineral planning guidance.

Lastly, the Government needs to stimulate investment in clean coal technologies, and provide the same degree of subsidy as it does for renewable energy. The UK has the opportunity to be at the forefront of developing state-of-the-art coal-fuelled power plants. This would not only be beneficial to Britain but would also be an effective way of setting an example for developing economies, including China and India, to take advantage of their own coal reserves in a way that is environmentally acceptable.

These are key objectives that Mr Brewer would like to see fulfilled. ‘To encourage and make the best use of indigenous coal there needs to be clear political support,’ he said. ‘The Government has been accused of not giving enough backing to coal, and this is why we are working hard on shifting government opinion and policy.’

Another key concern of CoalPro is the industry’s looming skills shortages. Many coal producers are now faced with the prospect of replacing an ageing workforce, and Mr Brewer believes the time is ripe for the sector to attract and recruit more young people to coal mining through promotion and extensive training.

‘Like many other industries, there is a potential skills shortage in mining,’ he warned. ‘Companies are aware of the widening skills gap, so it is important for them to run their own apprenticeships and training schemes to ensure that they have a fully qualified and skilled workforce.’

UK Coal, for example, have recruited a significant number of apprentices in recent years, and to meet further demand for skilled workers, they have also employed mineworkers from Poland.

‘Addressing the skills gap in coal mining is going to be a huge challenge,’ continued Mr Brewer. ‘Coal has typically been seen as a ‘dirty’ word, and against that background working in coal mines all day is hardly ever going to fulfill the expectations and excitement of most young people as a first career move.’

Nevertheless, with the arrival of clean coal technologies and future demand for coal becoming more apparent, coal can look forward to a new ‘cleaner’ image and perhaps becoming a primary source of fuel for generating electricity. That said, Mr Brewer is clearly excited about the future and the changes which he and CoalPro hope to make happen.

‘There is a strong case for the British coal industry to survive and expand,’ he said. ‘We have to keep operational costs down – below what is happening across the world – as this would give indigenous coal a competitive advantage over fuel imports. In opencast mining, we have to look at ways of increasing productivity from plant design to methods of working and further improving health and safety.’

[img_assist|nid=12299|title=Coal extraction|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=304|height=200]Most of all, Mr Brewer wants opencast mines to be treated by the Government in the same way as other industries in planning terms. ‘We must be allowed to optimize our coal reserves,’ he urged. ‘Producing our own coal creates new jobs, is cheaper than international imports and encourages investment in opencast sites.’

A good case in point is Cutacre Tip, located between Manchester and Bolton, which was once in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest man-made tip in Europe, created by waste from three mines that closed half a century ago. UK Coal have recently started a surface mining project there, which will involve the recovery of around one million tonnes of coal from shallow-depth seams and coal recovered from the tip. When production ends at Cutacre Tip, emerging in its place will be improved agricultural land and a 100-acre business park, creating over 1,000 new jobs in the region.

As the restoration scheme demonstrates, new UK mining developments are not the problem; they should be the future for the industry.

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