The U.K.’s coal-fired power stations have been shut down, but left a new set of challenges for the country to tackle. The transition was expected to take up to 40 years, and will cost billions of pounds in lost electricity revenue each year as well as increasing CO2 emissions. Experts say this might not be the best way forward, with nuclear or renewables being more financially viable options for countries looking to move away from fossil fuels
The “uk coal phase out” is a recent decision that has been made by the U.K. The country will be leaving coal for other sources of energy, but there are still many challenges that it faces.
BLYTH, England (Reuters) – In the nineteenth century, coal from mines in this northeastern English port town helped the United Kingdom become an economic and imperial giant. The nation has almost completely abandoned gasoline in the twenty-first century.
By giving up coal, the United Kingdom has paved the way for the United States and other countries aiming to decrease carbon emissions. According to energy executives and bankers, British governments made it prohibitively costly to burn coal while encouraging investors to spend tens of billions of dollars in renewables.
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The United Kingdom has also shown the difficulties that governments may face—as well as the mistakes that they may make—in weaning themselves off fossil fuels. One of the government’s biggest blunders was replacing coal with a combination of natural gas and wind turbines while keeping practically little gas in store, expecting importers could purchase as required on foreign markets. Energy costs have risen as a result of a worldwide gas scarcity and exceptionally weak winds, posing a danger to the country’s economic recovery from Covid-19.
Millions of homes are preparing for a harsh winter with increased energy costs. Steel, cement, glass, paper, and chemical enterprises are among them. Factory output has been slowed due to gas and electricity shortages, exacerbating supply-chain issues and raising consumer costs.
The energy crisis is emerging as global leaders prepare to debate solutions to curb climate change at a UN meeting in Scotland later this month. According to scientists, lowering emissions to the levels necessary to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels—a primary aim of the conference—will necessitate effectively eliminating coal-generated electricity.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will use the Glasgow conference to highlight the United Kingdom’s transformation. As a result, when the country’s utilities recently fired up a number of dormant coal plants when winds dropped down and gas supplies ran short, it was an unpleasant moment for the British hosts.
According to statistics from the International Energy Agency, coal provided less than 2% of energy in the United Kingdom in 2020, compared to a fifth in the United States, a quarter in Germany, and almost a third in Japan. Coal power plants in the United Kingdom that are still operational have been given orders to shut down by late 2024.
Mr. Johnson has claimed that the campaign to reduce emissions would help to revitalize the economy, especially in poor places like Blyth, which were formerly Labour strongholds before he switched them Conservative in 2019.
The evidence is contradictory. Thousands of stable jobs lost when coal mines closed have yet to be restored in Blyth, just north of Newcastle, which is home to an increasing number of enterprises in the renewable and battery sectors. Unemployment is greater here than in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the town’s main street is littered with shuttered businesses and bargain retailers.
“When the pits gone, everything vanished,” a local teacher, David Jones, recalled.
According to Maureen Patchett, keeper of the Port of Blyth archives, coal has been mined at Blyth since at least 1315, when monks dug out and burnt the fuel to manufacture salt. In 1794, workers dug the town’s first deep hole.
Coal seams, such as those beneath Blyth, aided Britain in launching the industrial revolution. Blast furnaces, railways, and steamships patrolled trade routes across the British Empire, thanks to coal.
Coal also brought with it toxic clouds, earning London the nickname “Big Smoke.” “Coal mines and ashes, lofty chimneys and red bricks…and a thick never-lightening cloud of smoke become the characteristics of the countryside,” writes George in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House as he travels north.
Blyth’s lifeblood was coal until the town’s last mine, Bates Colliery, collapsed in 1986 due to a labor conflict with Margaret Thatcher. In the next decades, more than 200,000 individuals engaged in the coal sector in northern England, Wales, and abroad would lose their employment. In 2003, the coal power plant in Blyth’s chimneys were demolished. In the skyline, a wind turbine has taken their place.
Ronnie Campbell, a former miner who served in Parliament for the Labour Party from 1987 to 2019, says he is “all for wind farms.”
As a 16-year-old, Ronnie Campbell went into Bates for the 3:15 a.m. shift, and later led a walkout there during a statewide miners’ strike in the mid-1980s. Now that he is no longer a member of Parliament, he is a supporter of the energy transition. His kid is a marine engineer who works on wind turbines.
Mr. Campbell said, “I’m all for wind farms.” “You shouldn’t send people into the mine to get coal when there are alternative, more ecologically beneficial options.”
As of 1961, the Port of Blyth was Europe’s largest coal exporter. It has now evolved into a one-stop shop for the offshore energy sector. Before heading out to create wind farms, vessels take up equipment made by local enterprises.
GE’s Danish subsidiary LM Wind Power wants to construct blades for the Dogger Bank wind farm off the coast of Yorkshire at a new plant south of Blyth in Teesside, according to the company.
David Jones, a teacher in Cambois, a former coal-mining community across the river from Blyth, at a social club.
In Blyth’s market square, there’s a cafe called Central. Young people, according to local residents and business owners, have few solid career possibilities.
Britishvolt Ltd., which is establishing a car-battery manufacturing on the coal yard of Blyth’s former power station, is one possible employment. According to persons familiar with the subject, the firm secured £15 million from commodities giant Glencore PLC in a capital round that valued it at over £800 million, or $1.1 billion. According to some sources, the corporation is looking for £200 million in grants and loans from the UK government. According to Britishvolt, the facility will employ 3,000 workers.
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According to a 2020 article by Theodoros Arvanitopoulos of the University of East Anglia and Paolo Agnolucci of University College London, the move to renewables might produce up to 150,000 power-sector employment nationwide by 2030.
The United Kingdom has cleaned up its electricity sector faster than practically any other sophisticated country. According to the government’s climate consultants, carbon emissions from electricity production fell from 204 million metric tons in 1990 to 45 million metric tons in 2020.
Gas has supplanted coal as the British grid’s workhorse, and renewables are catching up. Last year, wind generated about a fifth of all power.
Initially, coal’s fall had nothing to do with the environment. Nuclear power began to erode coal’s supremacy in the 1950s, when governments made the mistake of assuming reactors would be cheaper and more efficient than coal. In the 1990s, abundant North Sea gas further reduced coal consumption.
The ultimate blow came this century, when the government adopted stricter environmental regulations and increased the cost of licenses to use fossil fuels. Coal-fired power facilities proved unprofitable for utilities, thus new stations were canceled and old ones were shut down.
“The push for renewables was a clear carbon price,” said Alistair Phillips-Davies, CEO of SSE PLC, which shut down its last coal power plant last year and started building onshore cables for the Dogger Bank wind farm this summer.
The government pushed utilities, banks, and investors to invest in wind, solar, and hydro electricity, giving renewables a boost. Developers of renewable energy projects compete for a guaranteed rate of power for 15 years under an auction system. They won over bankers and other investors with those contracts in hand, since they could now accurately estimate their earnings.
A flood of finance poured into the industry, technology advanced, and the cost of offshore wind generation fell dramatically. Between 2011 and 2020, the consulting company Wood Mackenzie predicts that €4.2 billion, or $4.89 billion, was spent year on average in new offshore wind capacity in the United Kingdom. Measured in 2021 values, that sum will climb to €7.3 billion between this year and 2030, the business projects.
The Dogger Bank wind farm will use a turbine component currently being tested at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.
At the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, engineer Biran Abil, left, discusses test findings with Tony Quinn, test and validation director.
Blyth is receiving the results of her efforts. This summer, at Blyth’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a portside research center that stress-tests turbine components to show manufacturers and investors that they can withstand 25 years at sea, a 107-meter-long (about 350-foot-long) blade made by a GE unit—the world’s longest—was put through its paces.
“I feel like I’m a part of something much, much greater,” said engineer Biran Abil, 38, as he stood next to a GE turbine component that he had just exposed to ferocious twisting forces, simulating circumstances 80 miles off the coast.
Those turbines, of course, only generate electricity when the wind blows. The United Kingdom depends on gas power to fill up the gaps, but in 2017 it closed a key storage facility, assuming it could simply buy gas on foreign markets if needed. This assumption was proven incorrect this year, as post-pandemic demand put a strain on global gas supply, causing shortages in the United Kingdom.
By upgrading power-storage technology, such as better batteries and hydrogen that can be created with renewable energy and then burnt cleanly, the United Kingdom may yet be able to solve the issue. However, such solutions are likely years away, and firms are already working toward aggressive renewable energy output objectives. The government wants to increase offshore wind capacity from 10.5 gigawatts presently to 40 gigawatts by 2030.
Wind turbines, such as those visible from Blyth’s shore, are an important element of the United Kingdom’s energy strategy.
Residents in and around Blyth are excited about the potential of green industry investment, but many are waiting to see whether the promised employment will materialize.
Mr. Campbell, who has two new knees and a tremor known as “white finger” as a result of his time in the mine, is relieved to learn that safer occupations are now accessible to today’s employees. “All of these things come back to haunt you as you grow older,” he remarked.
Where Money and the Environment Collide
Joe Wallace can be reached at [email protected]
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The “end of coal” is a major shift in the U.K.’s energy production and it has left the country with a new set of challenges.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why did the UK coal industry decline?
A: The UK coal industry declined because Britain moved towards a more environmentally friendly energy source. They still produce some coal, but they mostly use natural gas and nuclear power plants for electricity production.
What has replaced coal in the UK?
A: In the UK, coal has been replaced by natural gas.
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