Spring is here and at the beginning of April wood anemones, wild garlic and the first bluebells are already in flower. Amphibians are waking to spawn in ponds and fold their eggs beneath leaves. Birds are gathering twigs and dry grasses for their nests.
However, I’m dreaming of snow falling softly, softly on the smoking chimneys and concrete towers of a power station…
On March the 24th, Longannet: a coal-fired power station in Scotland, closed down. Ferrybridge and Eggborough closed at the end of March. Fiddler’s Ferry and Rugeley will go cold over summer. The UK government have decided to close all coal-burning power stations by 2025 to limit carbon emissions.
The remaining power stations include Aberthaw B, Cottam, Drax, Uskmouth and West Burton A. At one point, Drax provided 7% of the UK’s energy, burning 36,000 tonnes of coal a day and 9.1 million tonnes a year.
On December the 18th 2015, Kellingley Colliery: the last coal mine in Britain shut down. In his moving and eloquent article ‘The Last Shift’ in Northern Earth magazine, folklorist John Billingsley recorded the moment 450 miners left Kellingley’s gates for the final time, and the next day’s procession to Knottingley Town Hall led by Death with his scythe to the tune of the Knottingley Silver Band.
In his foot notes, John raised the point ‘Though Kellingley, like other closed pits, still had plentiful reserves, Britain’s coal-fired power stations and homes will still burn coal, imported from thousands of miles away, mostly from Russia and Colombia, raising transport emissions questions of its own.’
When I looked into this, I saw in 2014 Britain was importing half its coal from Russia through the Siberian Energy Company Co (SUEK) which is owned by billionaire Andrey Melnichenko.
SUEK transports coal to Europe from 10 underground mines and 2 open pits in Kemerovo. Kemerovo’s open pit mines are huge; employing explosives, mining excavators and gargantuan dumper trucks to dig coal from deepening canyons. Such enterprises typically run 24-7 every day of the year but New Year’s Day.
Underground miners face similar dangers to those once faced in the UK. Explosions of methane in the Raspadkaya (2010) and Ulyanovska (2007) mines killed 66 and 108 people. The latter caused controversy because the miners’ safety equipment had been tampered with to decrease its recognition of methane to increase coal production.
Although there is a section on sustainability on the SUEK website there is no direct recognition of the role of coal-burning in global warming. Contrarily ‘Coal is an essential resource for tackling the challenges facing the modern world – specifically the rapid increase in energy consumption. Coal is significantly cheaper and more accessible than other fossil fuels and its reserves are distributed much more equally around the planet.’
In The Guardian, Damian Carrington states that the UK’s coal consumption has dropped by 22% since 2014, leading to a 4% drop in national annual emissions. Renewable electricity generation has risen by 29.5%. Much of this is from wind power and the continuing conversion of Drax to biomass. Less positively, oil and gas production are 13% and 8% higher.
Carrington notes ‘the UK is the only G7 country increasing fossil fuel subsidies’. £5.9bn has benefited (mainly foreign-owned) fossil fuel companies in the UK and £3.7bn overseas ‘including Russia, Saudi Arabia and China’.
In Lancashire, local people are awaiting the results of Greg Clark’s decision whether to allow Cuadrilla to frack at Roseacre and Little Plumpton following the enquiry which took place at Blackpool Football Stadium from the 8th of February to the 17th of March.
The ‘going cold’ of coal-fired power stations will only be a step toward decreasing the emissions that are leading to increasingly wet winters and hot summers if coal is replaced by renewables rather than shale gas or other fossil fuels.
Damian Carrington, ‘Rapid decline of coal use leads to drop in UK emissions‘ in The Guardian, March 31st 2016
Damian Carrington, ‘UK becomes only G7 country to increase fossil fuel subsidies‘ in The Guardian, 12th November 2014
John Rees, ‘Britain STILL depends on coal for 40% of its electricity‘ in This is Money, 26th April 2014
John Billingsley, ‘The Last Shift’ in Northern Earth Magazine, Issue 144, March 2016