The Government’s Energy Bill and Electricity Market Reforms (EMRs) are clearly at odds with the TUC’s 2011 “Roadmap for Coal” strategy, but like previous governments this one has its fingers crossed and its eyes firmly closed. The drive from the EU, signed up to by all British governments since the 1984-85 miners’ strike, has been for a mix of low-carbon generation. This has meant essentially the dash for gas with the cosmetics of wind farms polluting the countryside and coasts, closure of coal power stations and either indecision or closure with regard to nuclear power stations.
The challenges to Britain’s energy industries are clear: to provide a low-carbon generation mix; to implement carbon capture and storage; to provide security and affordability of supply.
The numbers employed in coal mining and the electricity supply industry have dwindled to the lowest ever: around 60,00 miners and 4,250 power station workers. But there is the potential to increase those employed, adding between 150,000 and 400,000 highly skilled wealth-generating jobs, by using Britain's energy expertise to become an energy-building centre for the world.
Where the power comes from
Understanding Britain’s electricity supply industry is critical. There are an estimated 1000 years of coal reserves in Britain. Britain mines 18 million tonnes of coal at present and imports approximately 34 million to make up the coal-fired power station burn of 52 million. Nineteen of these power stations produce 28 per cent of Britain’s generation; gas generation produces a further 47 per cent, with nuclear, renewables and imports making up the rest. Britain is committed to substantial decarbonised-fuel generation by 2030 with complete carbon-free generation by 2050.
There are 28 gigawatts of coal-fired generation at present. Under the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive five coal-fired power stations will close in 2015, taking 8 GW out of the coal-fired power stations' capacity and contribution to demand.
The government plan is that imports of gas will cover the shortfall. Otherwise the shortfall will mean instability of supply and power cuts. Deals to import ever-increasing amounts of gas from Norway, Russia and North Africa are literally in the pipeline. And then a gas-fired power station – a glorified gas fire in an aircraft hangar – can be thrown up in months as opposed to the 10 to 15 years lead-in time to build a coal or nuclear power station, subject to planning permissions, modernised designs and carbon capture technology being in place. To build a new coal mine would take a similar lead-in period of 10-15 years.
But gas is not clean, reliable in supply or in the long run affordable. So the question as to what happens first – provision of clean, reliable, affordable energy or power cuts – is the question exercising many minds in industry. ■