Tony Lodge: Face to face with the fact that we need coal power

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TWO THOUSAND, three hundred feet beneath South Yorkshire is a subterranean world of roadways and tunnels dimly lit and humming to the sound made by miles of moving conveyor belt.

This descent, twice the height of the Eiffel Tower, is the daily routine of the 450 miners at one of the country’s remaining deep mines at Hatfield just outside Doncaster.

Here Britain’s biggest coal reserves sit waiting to be cut away by the colliery’s huge bacon slicer-style shearing machines.

Once a visitor has travelled by miniature train, walked underground for 40 minutes and then travelled lying on a conveyor belt to reach the coal face, passing many miners on the way in temperatures nudging 42 degrees, the “face” is as impressive as it is daunting, glistening in the dust-filled light.

This is the Barnsley Seam which stretches from its namesake area towards Lincoln and the North Sea. It contains high quality coal which when cut can find itself in the boilers of one of the big coal-fired power stations within 24 hours, helping provide the 40 per cent of electricity which is still generated from coal on a normal day. On cold, windless days, this supply can rise towards 50 per cent.

Hatfield is one of the few survivors of an industry which once peppered the South Yorkshire landscape with mines.

News this week that nearby Kellingley Colliery could close within 18 months has again highlighted the challenging conditions this industry faces and which forced many other pits to close following coal privatisation in 1994.

Importantly, Hatfield sits on a vast coal resource in comparison to many other Yorkshire pits which had largely worked out their own coal reserves thus making them uneconomic.

It has often been heralded as a mine which could become key to supplying a new “clean coal” industry where carbon from coal is captured and buried deep underground when it is burned to generate electricity. For many years there were plans for a radical new clean coal power station alongside the mine.

Carbon capture and storage technology works. In Canada, a new clean-coal power station called SaskPower, in Saskatchewan, opens next month and will burn local coal to generate electricity.

Ninety five per cent of the plant’s carbon dioxide will be captured and this will be pumped into the depleted oil sands of Alberta where it will force out yet more oil. This model should be repeated in Yorkshire when the new White Rose clean coal plant is constructed near Drax. The CO2 from this plant will be piped into empty oil and gas wells in the North Sea.

This new technology provides the UK with a great opportunity. If it is rolled out at a scale when its costs will fall, then existing and possibly new coal mining projects can be developed in the knowledge that the market for coal will remain strong as existing coal-fired power stations begin to reach the end of their lives in the next decade.

But a more immediate and pressing problem looms for Britain’s remaining deep and surface mines which supply the hungry coal market alongside imports from around the world.

Today the UK relies on coal to supply over a third of its electricity from a fleet of coal-fired power stations which have reliably provided power since their introduction almost 40 years ago.

New carbon taxes risk forcing these power stations to close earlier than planned. These taxes, which result in the UK enduring carbon costs nearly five times higher than the rest of the European Union, are threatening an energy crisis and soaring energy bills.

Taxing the emissions from power plants like Ferrybridge and Eggborough at a very high level is resulting in them becoming more and more uneconomic. There is nothing of comparative generating size ready to replace them.

The Government froze its Carbon Price Floor tax in the Budget, but this still means that UK power stations which rely on coal and less so gas will still be very heavily taxed from this year.

The Government must now start to reduce its Carbon Price Floor and instead welcome and encourage cheaper energy generation. UK power stations should have the same carbon taxes as those in the rest of the EU.

Events in Crimea have provided a focus on the need to maximise indigenous energy resources. This must mean an important role for coal, both through existing power stations and those which will come with the development of “clean coal” and carbon capture.

Thousands of feet under South Yorkshire may sound like a strange place to appreciate the politics and economics of British energy policy but witnessing the coal being extracted from the mighty Barnsley Seam puts it in perspective; this is our most abundant energy resource, we should support and encourage its continued use and our access to it.

To abandon coal would be an almighty folly and fundamentally weaken energy security today and for future generations. It can still be a fuel for Britain’s future.

Tony Lodge is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies. Last month he joined the morning shift at Hatfield Colliery, near Doncaster.