UK coal use up 32.5% in 2012

By John Parnell

The UK’s use of coal increased by 32.5% in 2012, according to the latest statistics released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The marked leap seems to be driven by current prices rather than a change in policy. Gas use was down by 33.8% as electricity generators swapped it for cheaper supplies of coal, according to the data released today.

These figures are likely to be a high-tide mark for coal in the UK, with four major plants slated for closure by the end of March 2013.

Coal power stations emit around double the greenhouse gases of natural gas plants making them a target for climate change policy makers.

The Drax coal power station, the largest single source of emissions in the UK, plans to switch to 50% biomass (Source: Flcikr/TheWritingZone)

The transition to gas in the US, thanks to its domestic shale supplies, has seen it exporting more of its coal with Europe the main recipient.

European gas comes from a number of smaller domestic sources in the North Sea, imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and piped gas from Russia. Transportation, storage, distribution and increased security and political risks make imported gas more expensive.

According to the IEA, in June 2012, the spot price of natural gas per unit in the US was $2.10 compared to $9.90 in the UK. LNG meanwhile was $12 in the Mediterranean and $17 in Asia. Prices can be particularly volatile.

Regulations in the US are closing high emitting coal power stations, which are being replaced by increasing the output from its gas-fired stations. Emissions from the power sector in the US fell 4.6% in 2011.

It has been pointed out however, that these emissions have in effect been exported elsewhere, in the form of the displaced coal.

It would appear that the UK has been a major recipient, despite EU rules also closing older coal-fired power stations.

Nick Molho, Head of Climate & Energy Policy at WWF-UK said while the trend for increases in coal generated electricity in the UK and other parts of the EU was of concern, the shift was likely a short-term one.

“It is important to point out that this increase in electricity being produced from coal is not linked to the construction of new coal plants in the UK but to short-term factors which have temporarily increased the amount of electricity being generated from existing UK coal plants,” he told RTCC.

“These factors are primarily linked to the currently very weak price of carbon in the EU, the upcoming introduction of the carbon floor price in April 2013, which will increase the cost of electricity coming from coal plants, and to the current high price of gas in the UK relative to that of coal.

“These have created a short term incentive for coal plants that will have to close under the Large Combustion Plant Directive to use up as many of their remaining operating hours prior to April 2013,” he added.

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