It has been decades since coal was paramount in the energy sector in Britain. In most people’s minds, obviously excluding miners, its decline is a blessing. Coal may have made Britain rich but when it was king, our towns and cities were coated in thick black soot and the effect of all those emissions on people’s health was devastating.
With a government committed to meeting Britain’s obligations to continue cutting CO2 emissions, and only 18 coal power stations left, it seemed as if these relics of the past were soon to go the same way as the steam engine.
But the vagaries of international pricing have since intervened, and, as the gas price spirals upwards and that of coal tumbles, a reprieve for Britain’s remaining coal power stations appears in sight. As we report today, instead of shutting them down, as green environmentalists until recently expected, a loophole in the Government’s Energy Bill may allow them to upgrade their facilities so that they can remain open into the next decade.
The reason for the change of heart is simple. As the demand for energy grows, there are fears that we could soon face restrictions on its use, or even 1970s-style blackouts. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has warned in a recent report of “tightening electricity margins”. As a result, the feeling in Whitehall is that we should keep every energy option open.
Environmentalists, who had hoped that King Coal had long since heard the last rites, are naturally appalled. Greenpeace, for one, maintains that Britain cannot meet its carbon targets if coal power stations remain open.
Their objections should certainly be taken into consideration. But we need to be realistic about what is being mooted, which is not the mass opening of new coal power stations, but the possible retention of most of the old ones for longer than we anticipated. We all want cleaner, greener, energy as the long-term goal. But for now, it may be that secure energy is going to have to trump emission targets.