Radical political analysis, commentary and discussion in Wales
Dadansoddiad a thrafodaeth radicalaidd o wleidyddiaeth yng Nghymru
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The case for coal

Patrick Lanham is quite right in stating that opencast coal mining is trashing the South Wales landscape and of course it is imperative that we do all we can to stop this iniquitous industry. However, to suggest that renewable technologies alone can power Britain cleanly and securely is also somewhat disingenuous. Britain currently generates 4.5% of its electricity from renewable sources and the thought of the British economy becoming a world leader in green technologies is derisory. We are already considered dinosaurs in this field by many other countries.

Change will not happen without legislation. Whilst we live in what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘parliamentary democracy’ no political party is going to put forward a manifesto pledge for a ‘no-growth’ economy or any policy which might bring fear of the lights going out. However hard we try, we are very unlikely to change the living habits of the majority of people in Britain.

In the meantime the problem of fuel security has to be addressed. Britain has never had an integrated energy policy. Governments of all shades have lunged aimlessly from one idea to the next with only the next four years to concern them.

In the last 25 years UK governments have squandered our most valuable assets. The privatisation of energy sources has led to profit a driven industry only concerned with profit instead of consumers or the environment. North Sea gas has been squandered and deep mines were closed for purely political reasons. The closing of deep mines should not be a cause for celebration by environmental campaigners. Hundreds of thousands of Welsh miners were thrown on the scrapheap, thousands of communities were destroyed and the rise of open cast mining inevitably followed.

Currently the UK is a net importer of energy. We import 8% of our oil, 32% of our gas and 70% of our coal. It is easy to believe that coal is a fuel of the past but globally the burning of coal increases year on year. It cannot so easily be dismissed as an energy source.

The UK burns 60 million tonnes of coal a year and 44 million tonnes of it is imported. This is totally insane. Not only do we have adequate coal reserves of our own but that which is imported is of vastly inferior quality, often produced in areas of very poor working conditions and political instability.

Climate campers were right to campaign against the Drax power station. However, the problem is not just that Drax burns coal. Why should the most modern of power stations produce more pollution than older, less efficient stations? The reason is that it burns the dirtiest form of fuel on the planet i.e. imported tar sands, shale oil and Petroleum coke. This power station made a pre-tax profit of £158 million in 2009. This is outrageous when that money could have been spent on quality coal and efficient filtering and processing facilities.

In the 2006 Energy Review the Coal Industry argued for money to be spent on clean coal technology, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). This advice was ignored. CCS, which has no emissions, could replace gas power plants, which emit more than half the carbon of non CCS coal plants, making an 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050 more achievable. Other technologies available for energy production with coal include Underground Coal Gasification. Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, and Pressurised Fluidised Bed Combustion. None of these technologies are being taken seriously by Britain’s privatised energy industries, not because they are unviable, but because they are expensive. The US, India, Brazil, China, Russia and others have vast reserves of coal and they will burn it. Only by forging ahead with Clean Coal Technology can we hope to influence what happens in the rest of the world.

In 2006 something happened which sent shockwaves around Europe. Russia fell out with the Ukraine and the amount of gas which passes over the Ukraine to Western Europe was dramatically reduced. EU countries pay Russia $250 per 1000cu cm of gas whereas Ukraine was paying $50. This subsidy was unlikely to continue when Ukraine invited in the US and made moves towards the EU. When Ukraine took their gas from the pipeline anyway supplies to Germany, France and Spain fell by 30%, highlighting the vulnerability of transnational energy supplies.

This is the real reason behind the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the threats against Iran. The search for oil in the most remote regions of the world will surely bring greater disasters. The all powerful oil companies will prove very difficult to stop – even after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, no government will let the lights go out. In January 2010 when Britain suddenly experienced very cold weather there was a 45% surge in energy requirement. The only fuel flexible enough to have coped with this surge in requirement is coal.

The government is now committed to producing at least 35 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020. Alongside energy efficiency that may fill some but not all of the purported gap. The threat of nuclear power is again at the forefront of government policy. Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s kidded ourselves that we had won this battle. The campaign against a nuclear reactor at Portskewett in Gwent prevented the Severn Estuary from having the highest concentration of civil nuclear reactors in the world. The Chernobyl disaster stalled the nuclear lobby for a while but it is firmly back on the agenda again.

None of this is meant to undermine the need to forge ahead with renewable technologies. Unfortunately Capitalism will thwart radical ideas because too much is at stake for the profiteers.

The problem is not insurmountable but all options have to be kept on the table because there is no panacea.