Friday, February 23, 2007

Coal back in the U.K.

As oil and gas run-out, what is there left? Coal or nuclear... and renewables at some level as yet undecided it would appear. Fossil fuels and uranium are in effect concentrated sources of energy, while all renewable resources have a diffuse nature and are hence difficult to concentrate into the huge levels of energy that we actually consume. Of the fossil fuels, it appears that coal may be once again in the ascent. Due mainly to the industrial strife that surrounds the history of British coal-mining, and the "Custer's Last Stand" strike of Arthur Scargill in the mid-1980's, after which Margaret Thatcher's government had many of the mines "sealed" with concrete, as a mark of delineation to that era, it is easy to think that the show has long been over for coal. This is not true in fact, and of the 62 million tonnes of coal we still burn annually in the U.K., around 20 million tonnes is mined within the U.K. - around 50:50 from near-surface and deep locations.
When I was a child living in South wales, there were nearly one million men employed in the coal-mines there; then coal-mining stopped completely, the only working mine I am aware of being "Big Pit", which has been preserved as a mining museum. Now, the mine at Cwmgwrach (said as: "Kumrak") has been reopened and is said to be set to begin production some time this year. This is a landmark moment for the coal industry since it represents the first opening of a deep mine for 30 years. There are just seven deep-mines working in the U.K. Demand for coal has risen in the U.K., and indeed, 50% of the nation's electricity is currently produced in coal-fired power stations, which almost double the 30% figure recorded in 2005, in consequence of colder weather conditions during the past two winters and soaring gas prices. Those prices probably can be taken as an indicator of resource availability and both gas and oil supplies from the North Sea have fallen significantly during recent years. It is argued by some that the oil-revenue so abundant during the early 1980's was squandered to pay the numbers of unemployed who resulted from the collapse of most of the hard manufacturing industry - in an apocalyptic show-down between the Thatcher government and the trade unions. Industry was the sacrificial lamb to destroy the power of the unions which had brought Britain to chaos and economic uncompetitiveness throughout the 1970's. Some will remember the "three day week" that Edward Heath put the nation's workforce on, in order to cope with the power shortages caused by a succession of miners' strikes; Margaret Thatcher was swept to power on a wave of malcontent, called the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, when most of the unions had called strikes and rubbish was piling-up in the streets. The nation had had enough of "Labour" which by then had little to do with "Socialism".
There are estimated to be around 89 million tonnes of coal remaining at Cwmgwrach, and that an annual production of 1 million tonnes per year will result from 2008 onwards. The mine was closed in 1999 on grounds that it was no longer profitable to run it. The availability of cheap natural gas from the North Sea (and the crushing of the Miners' Union) rendered gas the cheaper option, but a combination of less available and more expensive gas and more efficient mining methods for coal have cast this "black" industry into a "greener" light. I must look into exactly what these methods are and how they differ from their former counterparts, but there is apparently less waste than there used to be and the energy than can be produced from coal is "very clean" - I presume that means that much of the noxious gases are scrubbed from the flue emissions, now.
A revamping of the mining industry wholesale, if that will occur, means the creation of many new jobs and the resurrection of many of the former "pit-villages" whose communities were destroyed by the collapse of coal mining. The U.K. government's plans to approve a new generation of nuclear reactors (said erroneously to be carbon-free, when they are not if the construction and uranium milling and processing is taken account of) were dealt an awkward blow last week by the High Court in London, who declared that the decision to approve them was illegal because of flaws in public consultations. I'm sure this will be sorted-out, and there will be more nuclear power, at least to replace the old reactors that need to be decommissioned by 2025. However, until this issue is resolved, and in any case since the level of investment in renewables is risible, and we have to burn something, I expect to see a near miraculous resurrection of the coal industry - and perhaps the attendant new "pit-villages" will prove to be the first of the new localised communities that will be engendered, post peak-oil.

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