climate change energy

The depressing return of coal

What’s the main source of our electricity in Britain? If you were about to say gas, think again. In the last couple of years coal has leapfrogged back above natural gas and is currently supplying about 40% of our electricity.

coal power

That’s partly down to fracking in the US. As gas prices have plummeted across the Atlantic, American power stations have switched to gas. Coal prices have fallen and more of it has been exported, and the energy companies over here have been quick to seize the cheaper energy source, despite the fact that coal produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas. With coal in demand again, there has even been a small flurry of activity around Britain’s own remaining coal reserves, with new open-pit mines proposed in Wales, Staffordshire and the North East.

This is bad timing. In 2015 new EU regulations come into effect that limit the emissions from coal power stations. Under the Large Combustion Plant Directive, any remaining coal power stations would need to be retrofitted to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions and particulate pollution. If it is too expensive to re-fit, the power stations would have to close. A number of Britain’s oldest and dirtiest power stations were expected to shut or to be mothballed by 2015. Some already have, including Kingsnorth and Didcot A.

However, if the economics of coal is working in its favour again, then the energy companies may choose to re-fit their coal power stations and keep them open. If they did, then the biggest obstacle to Britain lowering its carbon emissions may survive for another generation.

It’s a fine line, and much may hinge on this week’s budget. The government has already made it easier for coal power to continue by rejecting an amendment on coal power to the Energy Bill, and by declining to set a carbon target for energy generation by 2030. If it now compounds that error by freezing the Carbon Price Floor this week, we may be watching our climate targets slip out of reach. The coal industry has been calling for a freeze. Without it, says CoalPro, the Carbon Price Floor “will suffocate long-term investment in coal” – which is of course exactly the point. The Carbon Price Floor is unpopular and flawed, but now would be a bad time to scrap it or freeze it. It could be just the little extra that tips the balance back to coal, and an energy technology unfit for the 21st century.


  1. Agree with your analysis, looking at the NETA electricity page the energy companies are desperate not to use gas. Sometime recently wind electricity output has been higher than that from gas. We are importing large amounts through the interconnectors from Holland and France. Is the graph from DUKES?

  2. Wind and “Other”are making a nice up-tick on your graph. If we could get more homes and businesses to install solar panels or turbines we would not need coal.
    When I see turbines I think that smart people live in the area. It’s not an eye sore. The stupid things society does in the name of progress and people are pissed about wind turbines? Give me a break.

    1. Yes, although it’s so frustrating that the anti-wind brigade in government are doing their level best to halt that useful uptick. You could hardly imagine a more perverse thing to do.

      The other thing we could do to move forward is to dramatically reduce our energy needs, increasing the share of renewable energy by reducing demand overall.

      1. Yes. Conservation is the cheapest route to using less energy. just replacing light bulbs, sealing windows and adding insulation would do so much. and no one’s view would be obstructed!

  3. I’m curious about the graph, or rather the info it shows, is it based on the amount of energy sold in the UK or the amount generated? What I am getting at is whether or not it is taking account of the energy generated and used by individuals, does it count in the energy created by my solar panels and used by me or is that just ignored.

    If it is just ignored then it is giving a false picture to a certain extent, it makes the fossil fuels look like they have a bigger bite of a smaller pie.

    It would be interesting to see the same sort of information presented as total amounts rather than as percentages, I feel that graphing against percentage can be misleading, for example coal was about 38% in 2003 and is just over 40% now, so it is pretty much the same, except it isn’t because the total energy used has probably increased in those 10 years, so in real terms the amount of energy produced by coal has probably increased. (I might be wrong, I based that on what I think, not on any facts)

    Good Luck

    1. Good questions. The graph shows the output of larger energy generators, so it wouldn’t count your solar panels as I understand it. I imagine it’s harder to calculate domestic energy generation, but I read recently that there were now half a million buildings with solar panels, which has got to count for something.

      I will have to do some digging around on the DECC website and see if I can find some relevant comparisons.

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