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Comment: Can the UK kick its coal habit?

Professor Phil Taylor explains why the Government’s decision to refuse an open cast mine at Druridge Bay will set a benchmark for the future of energy in the UK.

Landmark move

In 2014, a proposal was put forward to remove 3 million tonnes of coal from an opencast mine close to Druridge Bay, on the Northumberland coast.

The proposed developer, HJ Banks & Co Ltd, argued coal fired power stations are essential for the security of the UK’s energy supply and in July 2016, planning permission for the mine was approved by Northumberland County Council.

But in a landmark move, central Government called a public inquiry on the grounds of climate change – the first time any planning permission decision has been called to inquiry on this basis.

And today – eighteen months after Sajid Javid first took responsibility for a planning decision for the new coal mine – the communities secretary said he had concluded the project should not go ahead on the grounds that it would exacerbate climate change.

This rejection is the first time any planning permission decision has been refused on this basis, setting a precedent for all future applications.

It is a significant step in taking tackling climate change seriously and shows the UK to be leading in this regard.

It is particularly pleasing that the world class research in energy systems here at Newcastle University helped the Government to come to this decision.

Whole-systems approach

At the inquiry, the expert witness for the developer argued that if coal fired power stations are phased out, a significant number of new gas fired power stations would be required, providing 7GW of gas generation. 

They also claimed other cleaner sources of energy cannot be relied upon as a consistent source of energy. Wind power, for example, provides an intermittent source of energy as the wind does not always blow.

Similarly, the sun does not always shine, so photovoltaic systems will not generate sufficient energy. For these reasons, opening the new mine would have been an important step in ensuring that the UK maintains a good supply of coal for its power stations.

But there is no single source of fuel that provides the energy to satisfy the whole of the UK’s energy requirements. Instead, it is essential to take a whole systems approach when considering the UK’s energy mix.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) collate data on the UK’s electricity generation mix which are updated each quarter. These most recent figures show that compared with a year ago, gas generated energy increased by 3% to 40%, nuclear energy increased by 0.1% (19%) and renewables (wind and solar, hydro and bioenergy) increased 1% to 27%.

During the same period, the proportion of energy generated from coal fell by 5% to 11%. These figures show coal is declining in importance and that we have many options to replace it.

Significant implications

By increasing the utilisation of existing gas facilities plus a small increase in capacity in power from gas and combining this with power produced from renewables such as wind, biomass and PV, the UK could phase out coal-fired power stations.

We can store energy when we have more than is needed, or when there is too much for network cables to carry and then release it when it is needed.

Britain also imports energy, via physical links known as interconnectors. At present, the British energy market has 4GW of interconnector capacity. The UK energy regulator, Ofgem, forecasts that planned projects will mean that this capacity will increase to 7.3GW by 2021. In addition, the electricity required could be managed through Demand Side Response (DSR), where consumers are given incentives to reduce their energy demand by reducing usage or turning off non‐essential items when there is a peak in electricity demand.

By balancing supply and demand on the electricity grid, we reduce the need to build new power stations. An additional benefit of decarbonising our energy system more rapidly is that this offers the opportunity to also decarbonise our transport and heat sectors.

The implications of this decision for our future energy supply are significant and will affect us all.

Professor Phil Taylor was an expert witness to the inquiry. He is Siemens Professor of Energy Systems and Head of the School of Engineering at Newcastle University. He is Director of the Newcastle University-led EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, a consortium of energy experts from the universities of Newcastle, Heriot‐Watt, Sussex, Edinburgh and Durham.

Druridge Bay is on the North Sea Coast in Northumberland.
Druridge Bay is on the North Sea coast of Northumberland

published on: 26 March 2018