Coal may no longer reign but it still has a vital role to play

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Coal may be unfashion-able, but it’s vital to the UK’s energy mix. John Collingridge visits Kellingley Colliery, a rare remaining Yorkshire deep mine.

THE rotating shearer grinds relentlessly on, carving huge sheets from the glistening black wall. Coal crumbles into lumps the size of breeze blocks, and is whisked away on a conveyor belt.

About 800m beneath North Yorkshire, the air is hot, humid and thick with dust.

This is the modern face of coal mining, an industry which once employed millions in the UK. Today it employs just 6,000, with only five remaining UK deep mines.

But it’s a sector that remains crucial to the country’s energy needs. In 2010, coal was used to produce more than 28 per cent of the UK’s electricity. The vast bulk of this was imported, but coal dug from UK pits still comprised 10 per cent of electricity production.

In the winter, coal produces almost half of the UK’s electricity.

Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire is a big supplier, with around 30 years of reserves remaining. The pit is one of UK Coal’s three working deep mines, alongside Daw Mill in the West Midlands and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire.

A relatively new pit, Kellingley only started production in 1965.

More than two million tonnes a year are mined from the Beeston seam, a 2.5m to 3.5m-thick layer dating back about 350m years to the Carboniferous period.

“It’s the best face we’ve been working on,” declares a miner, as another slice crumbles from the face – named the 502 panel.

He is one of about 700 miners who work at Kellingley, enduring temperatures as high as 34C, hours of darkness, plus the risk of rockfall, methane explosions and lung disease from dust-laden air.

Four shifts of 70 to 100 men travel 8km underground to reach the face. Initially they cram onto a train, then lie on the conveyor, ‘manriding’ to the face.

The seam is mined using the longwall retreat method – driving deep into the panel with two parallel tunnels or gate roads, then linking them to create a coal face.

This is mined by retreating backwards, each shear along the 350m-long face extracting up to 1,000 tonnes of coal. Spanning the length of the face are 235 hydraulic supports, each capable of holding up 650 tonnes. They move with the face, and the mine collapses behind them.

Most of the coal from Kellingley is burnt at Drax power station near Selby, as well as nearby Ferrybridge power plant.

A miner stops to indicate a large pillar of coal, a few hundred metres wide, which will not be mined. “It’s just under Eggborough power station. You can’t afford any subsidence.”

In this part of Yorkshire, industry and communities are rooted in coal.

Mine manager Shaun McLoughlin, 51, started as an apprentice aged 16. His father and grandfather were also miners, and he’s witnessed some seminal moments in the industry’s history, including the 1984 miners’ strike. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms eventually broke the power of the unions, and led to the demise of the industry.

“I’m passionate about coal,” he said. “It’s a vital part of the mix.

“Everybody takes it for granted that you flick the switch and the lights come on.”

But the industry, a shadow of its former self, is under threat, both from outside and within.

Debt-laden after years of tough geology and rising wages, UK Coal is trying to restructure to isolate risk at each of its mines. It has warned Daw Mill must close unless it can increase productivity and cut costs.

A carve-up of its property and coal mining arms is also being explored. Pension trustees may even end up owning a slice of the company as UK Coal tries to reduce its vast retirement burden.

Safety is also a huge challenge for the industry. In September, miner Gerry Gibson died in Kellingley when a roof collapsed on him. The investigation into his death is ongoing.

A year earlier, 200 miners were evacuated from the pit after a methane explosion. In October 2009, miner Ian Cameron died at Kellingley after equipment fell on him on.

Safety signs littering the mine are a constant reminder of the many hazards in this industry. Miners are stopped at the top of the shaft and double-checked for ‘contraband’ – battery-powered watches, lighters or anything that could trigger a spark and ignite the methane seeping from the coal. Infringement can lead to instant dismissal.

“We’ve got to try and change the culture,” said Mr McLoughlin. “When you talk to the guys about safety, things have changed dramatically. We’re not there yet but that’s where we’re striving to be.”

Coal has also become an unfashionable fuel, as western Governments try to tackle global warming and pollution. Strict European regulations on carbon emissions from power plants are forcing the UK to switch to cleaner fuels and close dirty plants.

By the end of the decade, the UK will face the closure of around a fifth of its current generation capacity, losing 12 gigawatts (GW) of coal and oil-fired power and a further seven GW of aging nuclear power. Half of Ferrybridge’s 2,000 megawatt (MW) capacity is due to shut down in 2015.

The industry and Government are placing considerable faith in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as the solution. This traps carbon as it is released during combustion and pumps it deep underground.

Drax and Ferrybridge power stations both hope to employ this technology to prolong their lives. Government plans to fund commercial trials and has launched a competition.

“Coal helps keep the bills down,” said UK Coal communications director Andrew Mackintosh. “Look at renewables and the money that’s been spent on them.

“Globally, there’s still big demand for coal. In China they’re still building a new coal power station every week.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that coal still plays an essential part of the energy mix. We’ve still got huge reserves.

“One thing we want is for CCS to be successful so that we can continue. We’re encouraged with the responses to the Government’s CCS competition.

“It’s not only us that sees a potential future in coal.”