United Kingdom and coal

From Global Energy Monitor

Coal consumption in the United Kingdom continues to fall, largely as a result of reduced coal-fired power generation, and domestic coal production -- especially from underground mines -- continues its long-term decline. The government intends to shut down the few remaining coal fired power stations by 2025. The coal truth: how a major energy source lost its power in Britain


The United Kingdom consumed 68.2 million tonnes of coal in 2006, with approximately 84% used in coal-fired power stations. Nearly all of the 18.6 million tonnes of coal produced in 2006 was for domestic consumption with just over 500,000 tonnes exported. Approximately 50.3 million tonnes of coal was imported, predominantly from Russia (45%), South Africa (35%), Australia, Colombia, and Indonesia.[1]

Since 1977, the domestic coal mining industry has been in freefall. In 1977 over 120 million tonnes of coal was produced in Great Britain, with over 107 million tonnes of that from underground mines. By 2006 underground mines produced just over 9.4 million tonnes. While there was growth in the output of coal from open cut mines during much of the same period, this sector of the industry is now also in decline.[2] With the closure of numerous mines, employment in the industry has fallen to an estimated 5,091 as of March 2007.

While the prospects for the domestic coal industry are bleak, the British Geological Survey reports that in 2006 electricity supplied by coal jumped by over 11%. (Electricity supplied by gas and nuclear power dropped by over 7% in 2006).[1]

It was reported in June 2011 that Britain's green energy sector produced 27% more electricity in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the same period in 2011 as the rapid expansion of offshore wind capacity started to bear fruit, official figures have revealed. However, at the same time power companies used 7% more coal.[3] UK’s use of coal increased by 32.5% in 2012.[4]

The United Kingdom is Europe's third largest industrial polluter, only behind Germany and Poland. It was reported in November 2011 that air pollution from industry in the UK costs the country €4-11bn a year in health and environmental damage, according to the European environment agency. When CO2 costs are included, the figure goes up to between €11-18bn.[5]

Coal Resources

The country has significant, potentially economic, hard coal resources estimated at 3,000 million tonnes. About 600 million tonnes of reserves are available in existing deep mines or in shallow deposits capable of being extracted by surface mining. In addition, currently inac- cessible resources have the potential to provide many years of future production at present levels. There is also about 500 million tonnes of lignite resources, mainly in Northern Ireland, although none is mined or consumed at present.[6]

The impact of the European Union Large Combustion Plant Directive on domestic UK coal consumption

In November 2001 the European Union's Large Combustion Plant Directive came into force. The Directive aims to reduce emissions of "acidifying pollutants, particles, and ozone precursors" in order to "combat acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone". The Directive regulates emissions from combustion plants with a thermal capacity of greater than 50 megawatts.[7]

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) notes on its website that "the LCPD aims to reduce acidification, ground level ozone and particles throughout Europe by controlling emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) and dust (particulate matter (PM)) from large combustion plants (LCPs) in power stations, petroleum refineries, steelworks and other industrial processes running on solid, liquid or gaseous fuel. These pollutants are major contributors to acid deposition, which acidifies soils and freshwater bodies, damages plants and aquatic habitats, and corrodes building materials."[8]

"NOx reacts with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to form ozone that can adversely affect human health and ecosystems. SO2, NOx and particles can travel long distances from their sources before being deposited onto land, surface waters or oceans, or forming ozone. Emissions from the UK contribute to pollution problems in other Member States, while Germany, Netherlands, France, Ireland and Belgium are the principal non-domestic contributors to sulphur and nitrogen deposition in the UK. A Europe-wide approach to reducing these pollutants and their impact is therefore required," DEFRA states.[8]

In the United Kingdom, the implementation of the Large Combustion Plant Directive requires that plants either install flue gas de-sulphurisation (FGD) equipment or 'opt out' and shut down when they have run for an additional 20,000 hours between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2015 or at the end of 2015. (Note: the total number of hours in a year is 8,760.)

Coal-fired plants in the UK which have decided to opt out are:[9]

Plant name Rated thermal input (MWth) Number of hours operated since 1 January 2008 Number of operating hours left (as of Jan 1, 2012) Closure date
Cockenzie Power Station - LCP 1 - (Units 1&2) 1600 17437 2563 by March 2013[10]
Cockenzie Power Station - LCP 2 (Units 3&4) 1600 16359 3641 by March 2013[10]
Kingsnorth Power Station 5500 15262 4738 March 2013[11]
Tilbury LCP2 2000 12561 7439 closed 2011, converted to biomass[12]
Tilbury Power Station LCP1 2031 12274 7726 closed 2011, converted to biomass[12]
Ferrybridge Power Station (LCP 1) 2724 11674 8326 Scottish and Southern Energy give no indication in their 2012 annual report when the plant is likely to be closed.[13]
Didcot A Power Station 5970 11486 8514 end of March 2013[14]
Slough Heat and Power 39 9776 10224
Ironbridge Power Station 2620 8583 11417 2015 though E.ON has plans to convert one unit to burn 80% wood and 20% coal.[15]
Slough Power Station 15, 16 & waste heat boiler 197 8444 11556

Scotland's energy Policy

In December 2008, Scotland ministers published what they described as the world's most advanced climate change bill. The proposal is designed to cut Scotland's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Although the proposal promises more renewable energy, critics of the plan say much of the focus is on "clean coal".[16]

First Minister Alex Salmond has promised support for the opening of two new coal mines, and his energy minister, Jim Mather, has commented, "Scotland has huge coal reserves which, alongside our renewables potential, could meet Scotland's electricity needs for many years to come." The new energy policy would only require future coal-fired power stations to be ready to capture carbon dioxide, should the technology ever become available.[16]

James Hansen takes UK to task over coal

On January 31, 2009, James Hansen - director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world's foremost climate scientists - published an open letter to Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.[17] In the letter, Hansen urges Salmond to issue a moratorium on new coal plants until and unless "any new plant can be guaranteed to operate with full capture throughout its entire life." Hansen also insists that merely requiring carbon capture readiness is not an acceptable policy:

It is a sham that does not guarantee that a single tonne of carbon will be captured in practice. Alternative approaches must be considered which ensure an effective moratorium on new unabated coal power.

On February 15, 2009, Hansen published another article in The Observer, this time lambasting the British government's decision to approve the construction of a new coal-fired power plant at Kingsnorth. Hansen cites the UK, United States, and Germany as the biggest per-capita polluters of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.[18][19] Calling for a complete moratorium on new coal plants and phase-out of existing ones, he stressed the need for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to act:[18]

The Prime Minister should not underestimate his potential to transform the situation. And he must not pretend to be ignorant of the consequences of continuing to burn coal or take refuge in a "carbon cap" or some "target" for future emission reductions. My message to Gordon Brown is that young people are beginning to understand the situation. They want to know: will you join their side? Remember that history, and your children, will judge you.

Citizen Activism and Protest

For details of protest actions against coal projects in the United Kingdom, see Opposition to coal in the United Kingdom.

Government Energy Policy

In May 2007, the UK government released a White Paper on the government's proposed future energy strategy. In the chapter on the roles of oil, gas and coal, there was little on offer to the coal industry other than hedged general support. While acknowledging that there were still "significant recoverable coal reserves" in the UK, the reported noted that a number of factors affected the ability for these to be commercially extracted including the costs compared to imported coal, "and the implications of planning considerations including potential environmental impacts." However, it did note that the government had convened a Coal Forum, comprising representatives from the government, coal mining companies, generators, unions and equipment manufacturers "to bring forward ways of strengthening the industry, and working to ensure that the UK has the right framework to secure the long-term future of coal-fired power generation; optimise the use of our coal reserves, where recovery is economic; and stimulate investment in clean coal technologies."[20]

One crucial element in the United Kingdom's future energy mix is what demand and supply side policies are adopted to cover for the retirement of several aging nuclear plants and a number of highly polluting coal-fired and oil-fired power stations. In its White Paper the government stated that "our analysis shows that 22.5GW of existing power stations may close by 2020. Of this, 8.5GW of coal-fired capacity will close to meet the requirements of the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) by end 2015; as will about 2.5GW of oil power stations. Around 7GW of nuclear power stations are also scheduled to close between now and 2020, on the basis of their currently published lifetimes." The report suggested that approximately 20 to 25 gigawatts of new power stations "will be needed by 2020" and that "up to an additional 10GW of electricity generation capacity may be needed by 2030."[21]

In response to the anticipated plant retirements, the government decided that it should seek to encourage further private investment in new power generation plants by publicising new regulations designed to "streamline the planning inquiry process for large scale electricity generation", provide "further details of a competition to develop in the UK demonstration of carbon capture and storage on power generation at commercial scale, and a programme of work to remove regulatory barriers to the development of CCS" and foreshadowed abandoning its opposition to the construction of new nuclear power stations.[21] (See Carbon Capture and Storage Demonstration Project (United Kingdom) for further details).

Carbon Capture and Storage and Nuclear Plants

In November 2009 the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change, as part of a plan to decarbonize the power sector by 2030, announced a policy that would ban new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS). New plants would be required to capture and store CO2 equal to at least 300 megawatts of CO2 emissions from the day they go online, and to capture all their CO2 emissions by 2025. The energy plan also calls for 10 additional nuclear power plants to be built largely on sites where nuclear plants already exist.[22]

To pay for CCS there will be a levy, likely to start in 2011, of about £17 a year per UK household, imposed on electricity suppliers but passed on to consumers. The UK Government is planning to raise £9.5 billion from the levy to subsidize up to four CCS demonstration plants. Details of the first plant will be announced in 2010, and will replace eight plants due to close by 2015 under European rules on air pollution. The levy will run for at least 15 years.[23]

E.ON had announced in October 2009 that it was delaying its plan for a new coal station with CCS at Kingsnorth, Kent. However, given the new government policy, the Kingsnorth Power Station may go ahead and, along with a proposed plant at Longannet in Scotland, is competing to be the first subsidized CCS demonstration project.[23]

Carbon capture funding cuts considered

A GBP2.7 billion U.K. coal gasification power station project that was planned to be capturing, transporting and storing carbon dioxide on a commercial scale in 2016 is on hold until the U.K.'s coalition government clarifies its policy and incentives regime for the technology, Powerfuel chief executive Richard Budge said in an interview. The Labour government enacted a levy on electricity suppliers to fund up to four carbon capture and storage (CCS) pilot projects. But the incentive might be cut due to the pressures of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which will be published Oct. 20, 2010, where the government will detail its proposed cuts.[24]

Although the CCS levy won't directly impact the government as it is a levy on suppliers and ultimately consumers, it would need to be administered by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Britain's energy regulator Ofgem, and would therefore have an impact on government accounting. The CCS levy was estimated to raise up to GBP10 billion over its 15-year lifespan. Powerfuel had planned to construct the world's first large-scale integrated gasification combined cycle power station with carbon capture capability in two phases with the plant operating on syngas in 2013 in the first phase. By 2015 the power station would have the gasification and carbon capture units installed and then move to full commercial operation in the second quarter of 2016. The plant would be using gasification technology licensed from Royal Dutch Shell.[24]

In addition to Powerfuel's project, Iberdrola SA's U.K. subsidiary ScottishPower and others including National Grid PLC, Shell and Aker Clean Carbon, is developing a plan to scale up its one megawatt prototype CCS test unit at its Longannet coal-fired power station in Scotland. Although the technology to capture and store carbon dioxide already exists, the entire chain has yet to be deployed on a commercial scale and consequently the costs are so high that the projects cannot be built without substantial government support.[24]

2010: Coal subsidies to end by 2018

In December 2010 the EU agreed to cut government subsidies to domestic coal companies by 2018.[25]

2011: UK calls for halving 1990 GHG levels by 2025

On May 17, 2011, the UK government announced legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2025. The agreement was informed by the Committee on Climate Change, which calls for 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, a recommendation in line with what many IPCC scientists suggest is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In 2014, the goal will be reviewed against the European Union’s emissions trajectory and the UK could adjust the target if the country’s reductions are stronger than those in the rest of the EU.[26]

2014: EU agrees to 40% GHG emission cut

In October 2014 EU leaders agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.[27]

2015: Climate Coalition pledge

In October 2015, the 3 major UK party leaders signed the Climate Coalition pledge, signaling the UK’s intent to act on climate change ahead of the Paris COP meeting. The pledge included "Ending climate pollution from coal use in the UK."

Domestic Consumption and Coal-Fired Power Stations

Even if a substantial coal-fired power station building program were to proceed, the prospects for the UK coal industry are limited. A 2004 report by consultants Mott MacDonald for the UK Department of Trade and Industry investigated the impact of the imposition of stricter sulphur dioxide emission standards on the coal sector. They concluded that coal production "would be sustained within a band of 21-29 mt in 2010 and 15-21 mt in 2016". The report noted that the narrow range reflected that the known reserves at existing mines and the "low likelihood that there will be any new major investments in mine capacity."[28]

It noted that most UK coal falls in the high sulphur band of 1.4-2.2% "with an average of around 1.7-1.8%". With stricter European Union sulphur dioxide emission standards being imposed to force power stations to either install flue gas desulpherisation equipment or retire non-complaint stations. The consultants view was that all large power stations "will increasingly need a diet of coal much lower in sulphur than standard UK coal grades."[28] In particular, it noted that the very low sulphur coal from Indonesia -- which has sulphur content of less that o.2% -- would be highly sought after. (See Indonesia and coal for more information on the rapid expansion of coal mining there).

However, the consultants found that where a high price was attached to carbon, nuclear plant lives extended and renewable generation boomed, "coal would be squeezed to very low levels". In this scenario, they considered that coal consumption could drop to 30 million tonnes in 2012 and 12 million tonnes in 2016. It's more optimistic scenario for the coal industry was that carbon prices were low, gas was expensive, nuclear stations decommissioned and limited expansion of renewable energy. In this scenario they considered that "coal could sustain or even increase its share in generation".[28]

Recent coal plant closures

Recent coal plant closures are:

  • the Tilbury Power Station which is owned by RWE nPower PLC and located in Tilbury, Essex. It comprised three units and had an installed capacity of 1,131 megawatts; RWE npower proposed to establish a new is a 1,600 megawatt supercritical coal plant at the site but, in November 2009, announced that it had shelved these plans.[29] It subsequently converted the existing plant to a 750 MW biomass plant and commissioned in early 2012.[30]

Estimated cost of air pollution in Europe

A 2011 analysis by the European environment agency (EEA), 'Revealing the costs of air pollution from industrial facilities in Europe,' estimates that air pollution from industry costs Britain £3.4bn-£9.5bn a year in health and environmental damage. When CO2 costs are included, the figure rises to £9.5bn-£15.5bn. The industrial facilities covered by the analysis include large power plants, refineries, manufacturing combustion and industrial processes, waste and certain agricultural activities. Emissions from power plants contributed the largest share of the damage costs (estimated at €66–112 billion). Other significant contributions to the overall damage costs came from production processes (€23–28 billion) and manufacturing combustion (€8–21 billion). Sectors excluded from the EEA analysis include transport, households and most agicultural activities – if these were included the cost of pollution would be even higher.

A small number of individual facilities cause the majority of damage costs. Three quarters of the total damage costs were caused by the emissions from just 622 industrial facilities – 6 % of the total number. The facilities with emissions associated with a high damage cost are in most cases some of the largest facilities in Europe which release the greatest amount of pollutants. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contribute the most to the overall damage costs, approximately €63 billion in 2009. Other air pollutants, which contribute to acid rain and can cause respiratory problems - sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3), particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) - were found to cause €38-105 billion of damage a year.

Longannet Power Station, Cottam, Ratcliffe Power Station, and West Burton power stations together emit more than 30m tonnes of CO2 and other pollutants and cost the economy up to £2.3bn a year.[31]

Major UK Coal-Fired Generation Companies

As of October 2012, the major coal-fired power generation companies in the UK are:

Coal Exports

The UK mines about 19 million tons of coal a year.[35]

Current coal exports from the UK are limited to approximately 500,000 tonnes. Nor are there any reasonable prospects for exports to expand. At present there is only one coal export berth for loading coal onto ships and the UK coal would not be competitive at anticipated international coal prices. "It is unclear," the consultants note, whether there would be many European buyers who would take UK coal, with its higher sulphur and ash contents and its low CV" [calorific value].[28]

Coal Imports

UK coal imports were up 20 per cent to 18 million tons in 2012 — with coal responsible for generating 42 per cent of all UK electricity, according to its Department of Energy. Forty per cent of imported supplies are from Russia.[36]

Articles and Resources


  1. 1.0 1.1 L E Hetherington, T J Brown, P A J Lusty, K Hitchen and T B Colman,, United Kingdom Minerals Yearbook 2006, British Geological Survey, May 2007, page 33.
  2. L E Hetherington, T J Brown, P A J Lusty, K Hitchen and T B Colman,, United Kingdom Minerals Yearbook 2006, British Geological Survey, May 2007, page 35.
  3. "Power from green sources surges – but so does coal consumption" Terry Macalister, Guardian, June 30, 2011.
  4. John Parnell, "UK coal use up 32.5% in 2012," RTCC, February 28, 2013.
  5. "Industrial pollution 'costs UK billions each year John Vidal, November 24, 2011.
  6. Energy Resources: Coal, World Energy Council, Country Notes, 2013.
  7. "Large Combustion Plants Directive", European Commission, October 2012.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK), "Air quality - European Directives: Large Combustion Plant Directive", Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website, accessed June 2008.
  9. "Opted Out plants 1 January 2012", European Environment Agency, October 2012. See Sheet 17, identified in the tabs at the foot of the Excel spreadhseet as "UK").
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Scotland: Cockenzie Coal Power Station To Be Replaced with a High Efficiency Gas Station" eGove monitor, October 5, 2011.
  11. "RWE to close UK coal, oil power plants in March 2013", Reuters, September 18, 2012.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Catherine Airlie, "RWE’s Coal-Power Plant in Tilbury to Become Britain's Largest Wood Burner" Bloomberg,April 8, 2011.
  13. Scottish and Southern Energy, 2012 Annual Report, Scottish and Southern Energy, May 2012.
  14. "German utility to close 2 highly polluting power plants in U.K.," Reuters, September 18, 2012.
  15. E.ON UK, "Ironbridge", E.ON UK website, accessed October 2012.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Fred Pearce, "Greenwash: Dirty claims on clean coal," Guardian, February 5, 2009.
  17. James Hansen, "In full: Letter to the First Minister," The Scotsman, January 31, 2009.
  18. 18.0 18.1 James Hansen, "Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them," The Observer, February 15, 2009.
  19. "James Hansen takes Britain to task over coal power plants," examiner.com, February 18, 2009.
  20. Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, "Energy white paper: meeting the energy challenge", May 2007.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Chapter 5: Electricity Generation" in Energy white paper: meeting the energy challenge, May 2007.
  22. Brian Smith, "U.K. Tackles New Dirty Coal Plants, Goes Nuclear" Earthjustice, November 10, 2009
  23. 23.0 23.1 Ben Webster,"Government impose ‘carbon capture levy’ to fund coal-fired power plants" Times Online, November 10, 2009
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Selina Williams, "Key UK CCS Plant On Hold Until Government Clarifies CCS Levy" WSJ< October 12, 2010.
  25. "EU coal nations win fight for subsidies to 2018," Reuters, Dec 10, 2010
  26. "United Kingdom Adopts Ambitious Climate Change Target" World Resources Institute, May 17, 2011.
  27. "EU leaders agree CO2 emissions cut," BBC, Oct 24, 2014
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 Mott MacDonald, "UK Coal Production Outlook: 2004-16", Department of Trade and Industry website, Final Report March 2004.
  29. RWE npower, "RWE npower applies to build UK’s biggest Carbon Capture Pilot Plant", Media Release, November 9, 2009.
  30. RWE Power, "Flexible power from biomass", RWE Power website, accessed October 2012.
  31. "Industrial air pollution cost Europe up to €169 billion in 2009, EEA reveals" European environment agency, Nov 24, 2011.
  32. E.ON UK, "Coal", E.ON UK website, accessed October 20121. (See also related links to individual operating coal plants.)
  33. EDF Energy, "Coal", EDF Energy website, accessed October 2012.
  34. Scottish and Southern Energy, 2012 Annual Report, Scottish and Southern Energy, page 42.
  35. Ben Jackson, "COAL has overtaken gas as the main method of keeping the UK’s lights on, figures show," The Sun, June 29, 2012.
  36. Ben Jackson, "COAL has overtaken gas as the main method of keeping the UK’s lights on, figures show," The Sun, June 29, 2012.

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