The Daily Telegraph

Coal, the world’s dirtiest fuel, is back – and it’s not going away


The UK’S last remaining coal power plant is to be kept open for another two years. Germany has passed emergency legislatio­n to reopen its coal plants and has postponed the phase-out of the fuel. France reopened plants last November, while Poland has started to massively increase production. As we started the 2020s, there were plenty of prediction­s that the decade would witness the final transition to hi-tech, green energy. Instead, something else has happened that no one planned for. Coal, the oldest form of industrial power, has made a huge comeback.

The war in Ukraine is one reason for that, cutting off the supplies of natural gas upon which much of Europe relied. And the poorly executed rush towards net zero means that we need back-up sources of electricit­y to compensate for the unreliabil­ity of wind and solar power and the huge amount of time it takes to build new nuclear plants.

The result? Coal is going to be around for a lot longer. No one wants to talk about it, mainly because it is the dirtiest form of power there is.

We should learn to accept that, and begin to look again at how we exploit the vast reserves we still have in this country, as well as in France, Poland and elsewhere. There are plenty of arguments about how quickly we should move to net zero, about which technologi­es we should use and about who should pay for the transition.

Even so, there was one point that everyone agreed on. Burning coal to generate electricit­y was by far the most polluting way of keeping the lights switched on and the factories running. By this year, we had expected to phase it out completely in the UK. From generating 40pc of our electricit­y in 2012 it was down to just 1.5pc by last year with the last remaining plants set to be closed imminently.

And yet this week we learned that the German energy giant Uniper plans to keep its Nottingham­shire coal plant open until at least 2024 – two years longer than intended.

It is far from alone, and the UK is not the worst offender. Germany is putting mothballed coal plants back into service as it grapples with potential blackouts over the winter. In November, France rebooted a coal plant in Saint-avold to help it cope with the temporary closure of many of its nuclear power stations.

In Spain, the energy giant Endesa has been asked to keep coal plants open, while Italy has postponed closures that were scheduled for 2025. We can expect to see a lot more of that. So far, the winter has been unusually mild, allowing Europe to muddle through without any form of power rationing. But all it will take is a cold snap in February – hardly a rare occurrence – and the grids across the Continent will be in crisis – and coal will be the only solution.

It is not hard to work out why coal is back. Following its invasion of Ukraine, Russian gas flowing into Europe has been turned off, and with the conflict settling into a bitter stalemate there is little chance of that coming back any time soon.

Imports of liquefied natural gas have partly made up for that, but in an emergency coal is the only back-up available at short notice. The race to net zero has been so rushed, with grand-standing and virtue signalling elevated above every other considerat­ion, that we have been left dependent on wind and solar power far earlier than we should have been. Renewables might be great in the long term, but until we have lots of excess capacity or new forms of storage, they can’t be relied upon. In the meantime, with gas in short supply, we will still need to burn coal as a back-up.

The trouble is, it is by far the dirtiest fuel available, much worse for the environmen­t than gas, oil, not to mention wind and solar and nuclear. Coal is a stop-gap resource. And yet, we should not kid ourselves that it is going to disappear any time soon.

There are still huge reserves of coal in the UK; we have 3.9bn tonnes of identified reserves, but that is a largely meaningles­s figure since no one has been actively looking for the stuff for a long time, and the more serious estimate is that there are 200bn tonnes that could be exploited. There is even more in Poland, still one of the top 10 coal producers in the world, and plenty more in the former mining regions of France and Germany.

There is plenty of shale gas as well, if only we were bold enough to brush aside the madder conspiracy theorists on social media (funnily enough, Alberta in Canada has yet to be convulsed with earthquake­s despite producing tonnes of the stuff) and start extracting it from the ground.

No one wants to keep burning coal for any longer than is absolutely necessary. It is dirty, expensive, and largely obsolete. Likewise, no one would pretend that fracking is the future of the energy industry on a 20 or 30-year timescale. And yet, for the last decade, energy policy has been a mixture of muddle, incompeten­ce, short-sightednes­s and wishful thinking. It is quite clear that coal is back, and is likely to be feeding electricit­y grids right across Europe for many years yet.

Instead of constantly scrabbling around for emergency supplies, switching expensive power stations on and off, and trying to pretend it has been phased out when it hasn’t been, we should just be straightfo­rward about it. Coal is going to be around for a while longer yet.

Perhaps then the UK should even be reopening a couple of its mines, and digging it for itself rather than importing it from abroad? The green blob might hate it – but if we still need coal, it might as well be our own instead of someone else’s.

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 ?? ?? Belchatow, the world’s largest lignite coal-fired power station. Poland is Europe’s most coal-dependent country
Belchatow, the world’s largest lignite coal-fired power station. Poland is Europe’s most coal-dependent country

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