National Grid and the end of British coal

The British grid operator flags its first day without coal.

Somebody in the National Grid control room in the UK has a sense of history.

NG is greatly understating the length of the British coal story. The 1880s were when electrical power stations began. But the switch to coal in England was already under way in 1600, as the trees ran out and wood prices soared. The first Industrial Revolution in the 18th century depended on coal. The steam engine was invented to pump water out of mines. Since coal is no longer burnt for anything else than electricity, the day marks the end of the four-century coal era in the first modern industrial country.

National Grid are noticeably not moaning about their loss of “baseload” coal plants, unlike Rick Perry. In her successful 1989 electricity privatisation, Margaret Thatcher split transmission, a technical monopoly, from generation, which can and should be competitive. National Grid started out in the public sector; it was later privatised, but remains tightly regulated with a public-interest mandate and no generating assets. (In the US the company operates as a conventional mixed utility). The model, as good ideas tend to do, has spread to Texas, Australia, China, India, Denmark, and Germany, and no doubt others. These grid operators are uniformly phlegmatic about the energy transition. They publish reports  about how to integrate 20%, 40%, 100% renewable electricity in their grids, how to fix the problems, and how much it will cost. They never SFIK say: stop this, we can’t cope, a secure supply requires baseload coal or nuclear plants. You only hear this biased testimony from the old-fashioned silo monopolies in parts of the USA and in Japan.

Another telling detail is the little gaps in the chart. The few surviving British coal generators have not been running at night. This is orthodox Econ 101: the grid control room has a merit order list of generators, and will call on the cheapest first. Renewables have zero marginal cost, and therefore go first when demand is low in the small hours. Orthodoxy is terrible for the owners of coal plants, which were designed and financed on the assumption that they will run as “baseload”, that is almost all the time, with spikes in demand met by more expensive gas generators. This effect  is cutting into the returns from coal plants, in Germany, Texas, Colorado, and India, even faster than the slide in the comparative LCOE of new build.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “National Grid and the end of British coal”

  1. People have been sneering at Hillary Clinton's casting blame on Obama for her loss, but it looks to me like what you are saying here is that the alienation of coal communities which his 'war on coal' rhetoric created was unnecessary, that market forces would have moved the needle without it.

    1. I'm not saying this exactly. British Tories had no sympathy for miners, especially after Scargill, and have fostered the exceptionally rapid decline of British coal. They have replaced it with gas more than renewables.

      That said, the combination of high capital costs, inflexibility, local pollution, high carbon emissions, and competition on price from flexible gas and green renewables has swung the calculation strongly against coal more or less everywhere. A brand-new coal generating plant in Rotterdam had €800m wiped off its book value last year by the not-so-proud owners. If Trump really wanted to bring back coal jobs to Appalachia, it would take big subsidies and political capital he does not have. He doesn't really, it was just another opportunistic false promise.

        1. Sorry, I figured that by asking for a citation of some of this "war on coal" rhetoric, it was implied that I was asking for a citation of Obama's "war on coal" rhetoric, rather than some writer at Time saying, "For five years, the coal industry and its fossil-fueled allies in the Republican Party have accused the Obama Administration of waging a war on coal."

          I'll try again, and hopefully I'm clear enough this time: I would like to see some direct quotes of Obama using rhetoric calling for a war on coal. That was your claim, after all.

  2. PS : if Obama erred on coal, I would have thought it was in the opposite direction. The mercury regulation and the CPP were severe blows to coal, and Obama never really owned to the consequences for miners, though IIRC he did try to get regeneration money for Appalachia. HRC was more honest, and she paid a price for it.

    1. HRC was also a victim of selective clipping. She made at least one speech in which she talked about her program for bringing jobs to formerly coal-mining areas, but they would be different jobs–the coal mines were no longer sustainable. What was clipped and repeated was a decontextualized claim that "we're going to shut the coal mines down."

      The context might have helped only minimally, however. There's a certain camaraderie among those who do difficult and dangerous jobs, and "member of a coal mining family" is an identity in some parts of Appalachia. Retraining is not an attractive option for people who believe they are too old to learn anything new or who see a new job as lacking the cachet of what they–or their family–used to do for a living.

      Which gets back to your point: she was honest, and it cost her votes. People went instead for promises that they almost certainly knew at some level couldn't be fulfilled. But honestly, it's hard to blame them for not going onto her website and reading the position papers there.

  3. Look at the numbers on that chart. The maximum number is almost as telling as the minimum. The peak is about 800 MW, which is to say less than the output of one standard-sized nuke plant. Most of the time, the coal-based electricity is 200 or 600 MW — that's two coal-fired plants, maybe three. (Maybe four or five if the british have some itty-bitty plants or can run the big ones at a fraction of full load.) At that point it starts to make sense to shut coal down simply because the manufacturing/logistics/support infrastructure is too expensive. Not enough full-time work for the people who maintain and repair the systems.

    1. Yes. "Hinton's heavies" have already gone. Ferrybridge C (2 GW) has closed, and Eggborough (same size) does not appear to be functioning pending conversion to gas. The 3.9 GW giant Drax has been converted to biomass in the form of wood pellets from commercial plantations in the US Southeast, a scheme much criticised for creative carbon accounting. It is government policy to drop coal entirely, giving the shade of Margaret Thatcher the final KO over that of Arthur Scargill.

  4. Coal is kilned to make coke, which is used to make steel. The coke ovens at Chorus burn a portion of the coal to remove the volatiles.

    1. The IEA give world steam coal production in 2015 at 5,811 mt., coking (metallurgical) coal at 1,090 mt, 14% of the total (including lignite). The coking total is practically flat from 2014. Odd, because world pig iron production (the new stuff from blast furnaces) has passed its peak and was 5% down from 2013. Chart and sources here. It's going to go on falling, as all the steel products made over the last three or four decades reach the end of their working lives and become scrap feed for cheaper minimills, which don't need coke.

      You would be right to point out that on current trends technology won't shrink coking coal to zero. Direct reduction of iron ore with natural gas is feasible but so far usually more expensive. India uses the method a lot. Serious steel companies are working on using pure hydrogen from catalysis instead, which is OK as chemistry. A carbon tax or equivalent would probably be needed to force the shift. The same of course holds for carbon-neutral cements.

  5. Growing up in England in the early 1960s, we used coal in our fireplaces (no central heating). It made a lovely fire.

Comments are closed.