Monday, May 01, 2006

Coal is the new "Green".

Is seems that coal is back on the agenda as a means to avoid troubles of energy supply, i.e. of "oil" from the Middle East. Some even claim that it will protect against global warning, although this is hard to believe as coal is by definition a carbon-based fuel and if you burn it surely CO2 will be released into the atmosphere, just the same as when oil or gas are burnt. Interestingly, in about 1900, when the population of the U.K. was about 40 million (now it is nearer 60 million) the per capita energy consumption overall was greater than it is now, so we have got some things right in terms of energy efficiency, and everyone has heard of the smogs of the 1950's, one of which is thought to have killed 4,000 of the population of Greater London - a "pea-souper" as such events were called in the amusing Cockney analogy of the air being about as non-transparent as pea soup. "The Clean Air Act" largely eliminated this phenomenon.The main problem was that particles were released into the atmosphere, coated with sulphuric acid generated by burning sulphurous coal, of sufficient smallness to be inhaled into the deep-lung. The ingestion thus of this material is believed to trigger heart attacks and brain aneurysms (similar to strokes but worse since the iron in the blood actually destroys the brain tissue).
But coal, once literally the black sheep of the energy family, is now being welcomed back into the fold. It was the burning of coal that provided the majority of the U.K.'s energy before the Second World War, hence the higher rate of consumption in the "good" old days. Coal is traditionally associated with "filth". Its extraction leads to slag-heaps. As a boy, growing up in South Wales, I well remember black-faced men emerging from the "pit", and coming home to strip-wash at the kitchen sink before eating their dinner ("tea" we used to call it), and maybe off to the pub for a few pints of weak, warm Welsh beer...or maybe off to Chapel, as the Methodist religion is known as colloquially in that area. "Bible Black" Dylan Thomas described the night as in the fantasy village of Llareggub in "Under Milk Wood", the name being "Bugger All" spelled backwards. Llareggub was reportedly changed to Llaregyb by the B.B.C. censors when the play was first broadcast. I also remember well the "Aberfan Disaster" in 1966, when a slag heap suffered a land slide and engulfed a school, killing off practically an entire generation of that town, Aberfan. My father helped-out in the rescue operations, afterwards.
In the first posting of this "blog" I mentioned that a commission by "The Royal Society" has determined that coal should be an important component of the energy mix that it has concluded to be essential for providing the U.K.'s energy to 2050. We may have changed some of our minds by then...who knows? Gas is no longer a cheap and seemingly inexhaustible source of energy, as it was in the 1990's when the nation switched to gas from coal in the follow-on to the decimation of the United Kingdom's coal industry in the mid 1980's. Effectively this was the end of the power of the Trade Unions, and to post an emphasis to that end, some of the pits were sealed up with concrete, which will need to be blasted back open if we are to ensure a domestic supply. Indeed, security of supply became a households phrase regarding gas when Russia cut-off its supplies to Ukraine last winter.
Richard Budge, who has been dubbed "King Coal" has been reported as saying that he has garnered sufficient cash (from a Russian businessman) to re-open a Colliery at Hatfield in South Yorkshire. This was indeed in the heartland of the industrial conflict overdriven by Arthur Scargill in 1985, as I remember it. Budge has also announced that he wants to build a carbon capture and sequestration plant in situ there, thus making the process cleaner and more "green" than in the bad old days. Presumably too, the technology for coal extraction has improved and is a less labour intensive and dangerous practice than is infamously remembered, especially by those of us who knew the mining villages back then, in my case in the South Wales of my childhood. In analogy, two German giants, RWE and E.ON have reported their intentions to run similar "clean coal" plants.
I believe that we still produce about 17% of our energy (that is the total budget) from coal, and this proportion looks set to rise. As far as the argument about CO2 emissions goes I'm not sure that burning coal makes much difference - indeed, we looked good in the U.K. in this regard when we switched from coal to cheap gas - however, it is the element of carbon capture that is key here, and could be applied to any carbon fuel driven plant, whatever its source, be that coal, oil or gas. I do have some reservations about the safety of this untested technology though - what would happen if a "well" of stored CO2 were to become suddenly released? I would reckon that the impact, both on local animal and human life - since CO2 is a suffocating gas, and is responsible for most deaths in the beer brewing industry - and longer term global warming could be catastrophic.
President George Bush proclaimed this year that America is "addicted to oil". Well, so are we and the rest of Europe, and the developing nations especially China, India and Brazil, so all in all, devising another source of energy is paramount, and coal of which there is plenty available around the world is a likely option for that. Coal provides something near to 75% of China's energy, and as the developing nations advance their process of industrialisation it will almost certainly prove a heavy source of electricity to enable that outcome. The developing countries, however, are less concerned with CO2 emissions, and so our best efforts will be drowned out by atmospheric CO2 contributions from elsewhere.
It would be false to think that the U.K. coal industry had died out, and indeed we produce about 20 million tonnes of the 50 million tonnes we consume every year, the missing 30 million tonnes being imported more cheaply from elsewhere (e.g. Germany) than we can dig it up on these shores. However, this may change, and with rising gas prices our coal may be the more profitable option. As ever, it is economic drivers that change behaviour, and I suspect that carbon capture will take a back seat ride in the longer run, while we await the results of the great "climate change experiment" that each and every one of us is taking part in and will, or subsequent generations of us will, witness.

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