Is this the end of coal?

Within seconds, the structure was reduced to a pile of grey dust. Last month, thousands of people watched online as Scotland’s last coal-fired power station was demolished in a controlled explosion. The Longannet boiler house began generating power back in 1970, but the CEO of Scottish Power explained that the decision to get rid of it was part of a “commitment to decarbonise the economy”.

The destruction of what was once Europe’s largest coal-fired power station is part of a broader shift away from coal. It started with a series of firsts: in April 2017, the UK recorded its first coal-free day since 1882, and in May 2019 it recorded a whole coal-free week.

These moments made headlines at the time, but COVID was to shake up our energy patterns much further; June 2020 marked the end of a 67-day run without coal. Of course, the drop in coal use was linked to plummeting energy demand in lockdown, but this was less an anomaly and more the acceleration of a long-term decline in coal use.

The great coal phaseout

In November 2015, the government announced a 10-year plan to “reset” Britain’s energy system and replace coal-fired power stations with gas. Coal use was already hitting a record low, with just 29 million tonnes being used for major power production in 2015.  Amber Rudd, Energy Secretary at the time, said: “It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the UK to be relying on polluting, carbon intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations.”

The government plan to phase out coal plants seems to be on track, with many plants closing well ahead of the 2025 deadline. After two closed in Cheshire and Wales last year, there are just four sites remaining in the UK. The next to close will be Drax power station in North Yorkshire this month. Meanwhile, coal use continues to fall, with 2019 seeing less than three million tonnes being used to produce power.

Why have so many coal-fired power stations closed early?

Research from the Carbon Tracker Initiative published a year ago, explains the economic calculations behind these decisions. For some time it has been cheaper to build new renewables than new coal plants in most places, but if you weren’t starting from scratch then it made sense to carry on with existing coal.

However, the Carbon Tracker Initiative report shows that most of the world has now reached a tipping point where even existing coal plants can’t compete with new renewables when it comes to value for money. The threshold was crossed earlier in the EU (including the UK at the time) than in other parts of the world because of carbon pricing and strong investment in renewables.

The story of coal production is very similar to the story of coal-fired power generation: a steady decline over the years.

In the third quarter of 2020, the last period for which we have government figures, we produced just 0.2 million tonnes of oil equivalent for coal, compared to 11.9 tonnes for petroleum.

The Cumbria controversy

So why exactly is the UK currently contemplating opening its first new deep coal mine in 30 years? Cumbria County Council is reviewing plans for a new mine in the midst of huge controversy. Most of the arguments in favour centre around job creation, but there is a green argument too: the coal would be used by the British steel-making industry, at a lower carbon cost than shipping the equivalent coal from abroad.

However, it cannot be assumed that British steel-making will continue to rely on coal in the long term. The Sixth Carbon Budget from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), published in December 2020, says that industries such as steel and cement need to rapidly decarbonise if the UK is to meet its net zero target. They recommend investing in technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and exploring newer possibilities such as the use of hydrogen in place of coal.

The CCC says that 85% of the coal for the mine will be exported to Europe, which weakens the argument in favour of opening it to benefit the UK steel industry. The CCC chairman has written to the Secretary of State for Local Government urging him to review the county council’s decision, saying that it “gives a negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities”.

Given the long-term decline in UK coal consumption, it doesn’t seem worth it to undermine our net zero strategy (both practically and reputationally in this way. Perhaps a better strategy for the long term would be to invest in the fuels and technologies of the future, rather than those of the past.