UK ditched coal and found itself with a new set of challenges


By abandoning its coal habits, the UK has blazed a trail for the US and other countries seeking to cut carbon emissions. British governments have made burning coal prohibitively expensive while prompting investors to invest tens of billions of dollars in renewables, according to energy executives and financiers.

The UK also drew attention to the challenges countries can face – and the mistakes they could make – when weaning off fossil fuels. The main misstep: The government replaced coal with a mixture of natural gas and wind turbines, but kept virtually no gas in stock, assuming importers could buy in international markets as needed. A global gas shortage and unusually light winds have created a surge in energy prices that now threaten the country’s economic recovery after Covid-19.

Millions of homes are bracing for a harsh winter with rising energy bills. The same goes for companies in the steel, cement, glass, paper and chemical industries. Gas and electricity shortages have caused factories to slow down production, exacerbating supply chain problems and raising prices for customers.

The energy crunch comes before world leaders exchange plans to limit climate change at the United Nations conference in Scotland which begins later this month. Scientists say reducing emissions to the levels required to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels – a key conference goal – will require the efficient disposal of the electricity produced. charcoal.

The Glasgow conference is the opportunity for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to present the UK’s transition. So it was a delicate moment for the British hosts when the country’s utilities recently commissioned a handful of idle coal-fired power stations after winds died down and gas supplies became scarce.

Coal produced less than 2% of electricity in the UK in 2020, according to data from the International Energy Agency, compared to a fifth in the United States, a quarter in Germany and almost a third in Japan. The surviving British coal plants are ordered to shut down by the end of 2024.

Mr Johnson said the drive to cut emissions could rejuvenate the economy, especially in struggling towns such as Blyth which were Labor Party strongholds until he toppled them Tories in 2019.

The evidence is mixed. Blyth, just north of Newcastle, is home to a growing number of companies in the renewable energy and battery sectors, but thousands of secure jobs lost in the closure of coal mines have yet to be replaced. Unemployment is higher there than in the UK as a whole, and the city’s main thoroughfare is dotted with closed shops and discount stores.

“When the booths were gone, it was all gone,” said David Jones, a local teacher.

Coal has been mined at Blyth since at least 1315, when monks dug up and burned the fuel to make salt, said Maureen Patchett, Blyth Harbor Archives Manager. Workers sank the city’s first deep well in 1794.

Coal fields, like Blyth’s, helped Britain start the Industrial Revolution. Coal enabled blast furnaces, railways, and steamboats that patrolled trade routes across the British Empire.

The coal also brought harmful clouds which gave London the nickname Big Smoke. When George ventures north into Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, “pits of coal and ash, tall chimneys and red bricks … and a heavy cloud of smoke that never lights up become the hallmarks. of the landscape”.

Coal was the lifeblood of Blyth until Bates Colliery, the town’s last mine, closed in 1986 after a labor dispute with Margaret Thatcher. More than 200,000 people employed in the coal industry in the north of England, Wales and elsewhere would lose their jobs over the next decades. The towering chimneys of the Blyth coal-fired power station collapsed in 2003. A wind turbine took their place in the horizon.

Ronnie Campbell first came down to Bates for the 3:15 shift at the age of 16 in 1959 and led the walkout there during a nationwide miners’ strike in the mid-1980s. the former deputy supports the energy transition. His son works on turbines at sea.

“I am all for wind farms,” ​​said Campbell. “You shouldn’t send humans into the coal pit when there are other products available that are environmentally friendly.”

The port of Blyth, Europe’s largest coal exporter since 1961, has become a one-stop-shop for the offshore energy industry. The ships collect the equipment manufactured by the companies based in the port before embarking to build wind farms.

General Electric Co. said its Danish subsidiary LM Wind Power plans to build blades for the Dogger Bank wind farm off the coast of Yorkshire at a new plant south of Blyth in Teesside.

One potential employer is Britishvolt Ltd., which is building a car battery factory on the coal yard of the former Blyth power station. The startup has raised £ 15million from commodities giant Glencore PLC in a funding round that has valued it at around £ 800million, or $ 1.1 billion, according to people. close to the file. The company is seeking £ 200million in UK government grants and loans, some people have said. Britishvolt said the plant would employ 3,000 people.

Nationally, the switch to renewables could create up to 150,000 jobs in the electricity sector by 2030, according to an article published in 2020 by Theodoros Arvanitopoulos of the University of East Anglia and Paolo Agnolucci of University College London.

The UK has cleaned up its energy industry faster than almost any advanced country. Carbon emissions from power generation have plunged from 204 million metric tonnes in 1990 to 45 million metric tonnes in 2020, according to government climate advisers.

Gas has taken the place of coal as the hobbyhorse of the British grid, and renewable energies are catching up. Wind power provided almost a quarter of electricity last year.

The decline of coal initially had nothing to do with the environment. Nuclear power eroded the dominance of fuel from the 1950s, when governments mistakenly assumed that reactors would be cheaper and more efficient than coal. The abundance of gas from the North Sea further reduced the use of coal in the 1990s.

The final blow came this century, when the government passed stricter pollution rules and raised the prices of permits required to burn fossil fuels. Coal-fired power plants became unprofitable for utilities, who abandoned plans for new stations and terminated existing ones.

“The engine of renewable energy was a carbon price, a clear carbon price,” said Alistair Phillips-Davies, managing director of SSE PLC, a utility that shut down its last coal-fired power plant last year and has started laying cables on land for the Dogger Bank wind farm. this summer.

Renewable energy received a boost when the government encouraged utilities, banks, and investors to invest money in wind, solar and water power. Under an auction system, developers of renewable energy projects compete for a guaranteed electricity tariff for 15 years. With these contracts in hand, they won over bankers and other investors who could now confidently forecast their profits.

An influx of capital entered the market, technology improved, and the cost of offshore wind power plunged. Consulting firm Wood Mackenzie estimates that an average of 4.2 billion euros, or $ 4.89 billion, was invested in new offshore wind capacity each year between 2011 and 2020 in the UK. Measured in 2021, this figure will increase to 7.3 billion euros between this year. and 2030, the firm’s forecasts.

Blyth is reaping the benefits. A 107-meter-long (about 350 feet long) blade manufactured by a GE unit, the longest in the world, was put to the test this summer at Blyth’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a port-side research facility that performs stress tests. turbine components to show manufacturers and investors that they can last 25 years at sea.

“I feel like I am part of something much, much, much bigger,” said engineer Biran Abil, 38, standing next to a GE turbine component he had just subjected to forces of. vicious twist, recreating conditions 80 miles from shore.

Of course, these turbines only produce electricity when the wind is blowing. The UK relies on gas-fired electricity to fill the gaps, but closed a major storage site in 2017, believing it could easily buy gas from international markets if needed. That assumption turned out to be wrong this year, when post-pandemic demand strained global gas supplies and triggered shortages in the UK.

The UK could still invent a solution to the problem by improving energy storage technologies, such as better batteries and hydrogen that can be produced with renewable energy and then burned cleanly. But those solutions are probably years away, and companies are now acting on ambitious clean energy production targets. The government plans to expand offshore wind capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2030, up from 10.5 gigawatts today.

In and around Blyth, residents welcome the prospect of investing in green industries, but reserve judgment as to whether the jobs they have been promised will follow.

Mr. Campbell, who has had two knees replaced and a tremor known as a “white finger” from his days in the mine, is happy to see that more secure jobs are available for young workers today. “When you get older all of these things come to haunt you,” he said.

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