By Joop Hazenberg On

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The era of coal power, after having played a key role in energy for two centuries, is coming to end in Scotland. Longannet in Fife, the last operating coal plant in mainland Scotland and one of the most-polluting in Europe with 9.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere every year, is expected to be shut down in March next year due to unprofitability. Government action played a key role in making coal pay some of the costs of climate change and in supporting wind-swept Scotland’s explosion in renewable energy production. The shutdown also puts more pressure for the closure of opencast coal mines and shifting Scotland towards a cleaner, healthier future.

The primary cause of the early shutdown is economic. Longannet is simply no longer profitable due to high environmental and transmission costs, and the rapidly-increasing competitiveness of renewables. Scottish Power, the operator, is thus shutting Longannet down four years ahead of schedule. As Longannet is relatively far from population centres in Scotland and England, National Grid charges Scottish Power £40 million per year to compensate for the cost of reinforcing transporting the electricity under extremely high voltage and to keep costs to consumers low.

Government policies have played a major role in spurring the transition. Companies have had to pay for pollution certificates as part of the European Union’s “cap-and-trade” Emissions Trading Scheme, although the carbon market has become so glutted with pollution permits that these have been too cheap to have much effect. More significantly, the British government’s Carbon Floor Price, in effect a carbon tax, has increased to £18 per tonne, making coal more and more unprofitable. Scottish Power would have also struggled to pay for significant renovation costs for Longannet to the EU’s industrial emissions standards and reduce release of toxic gases.

Photo Graeme MacLean
Photo Graeme MacLean

In contrast to some other parts of Europe, the Scottish Government, which benefits from regional autonomy within the United Kingdom, has strongly supported the energy transition, with the objective of meeting 100% of demand from renewable electricity production by 2020. “We see the economic opportunity of renewables in Scotland and the case for conventional energy is slowly but surely being undermined here,” said Gina Hanrahan, climate and energy officer with WWF Scotland.  “There is huge cross-party buy-in for that clean energy agenda. Broadly speaking there is a support for decarbonization.” The British Government is boosting sustainable energy primarily through the Renewables Obligation, which requires electricity producers to generate a rising proportion of renewable energy or pay a fee.

Indeed, renewable sources of energy have been expanding rapidly in Scotland in recent years from less than 10% in 2003 to meeting 50% of demand in 2014. While electric dams had long been the main source of Scotland’s renewable electricity, the growth has primarily been due to the explosive growth of wind power, going from being a negligible energy source in 2000 to providing two thirds of renewable electricity today. “Offshore and onshore wind resources are fantastic in Scotland – we have 25% of Europe’s offshore wind resources and the most wind projects in the UK. However, the British government is now cutting support for onshore wind and is somewhat reining in its clean energy promises,” said Gina. There are also hopes that Scotland, with a very long, wave-struck coastline, could exploit the seas’ tidal and wave power as well, but these are not yet widely commercially viable.

Longannet’s shutdown has also raised concerns. Opposition has been raised over about 300 jobs to be lost at the power station. Environmental activists however argue that the energy transition is inevitable and have called for a plan to ease the transition for workers who are affected. They also point to an estimated 11,500 jobs already created in the renewables sector in Scotland, about as many the whiskey sector. There have also been fears about Scotland’s security of energy supply, although the country is a net electricity exporter and National Grid has said supply should be able to be guaranteed.

Uncertain future for open-cast mines

Longannet’s shutdown could have positive knock-on environmental effects, namely putting in doubt the future of some of Scotland’s opencast coal mines, most of which are concentrated south of Glasgow. With ten such mines, more than either England or Wales, Scotland’s landscape is blighted with the resulting enormous holes and particulate pollution, contributing to respiratory and other health problems.

The mines had been suffering generally because of the low international price of coal and some, lacking rail access enabling exports, had been dependent on Longannet as their main customer. “There are some opencast mines which are going towards the end of their lives and some are getting slowed down or mothballed because of the low coal price,” said Malcolm Spaven of the Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance (SOCA) campaign group. “For some mines Longannet has been their sole customer. So there must be a question mark over their future when Longannet ceases to burn their coal.”

Another problem is that energy companies have been unable to assure that they will have sufficient funds to pay for the restoration of a site once the coal mining is completed. In 2013, energy company Scottish Coal’s bankruptcy and liquidation meant that six opencast mines it had operated had no funding for restoration, leaving public authorities and companies bickering over who would pay the bill. “The fact is we’ve got these big holes filled with water. They’re polluted and they’re an eyesore,” said Spaven.

There are now few plans for coal mine expansion or creation. Scottish Power has proposed setting up a new mine at Cauldhall, south of the capital Edinburgh, which would extract 10 million tonnes of coal over a ten-year period. The local planning authority has given a go-ahead conditional on a convincing restoration fund. But with coal prices low and the fossil fuel widely-expected to be phased out in the coming years, Scottish Power has been reluctant to go through with the plan and invest millions of pounds in a potentially dead-end project.

“Nobody nowadays thinks that there is going to be any serious demand for coal in the UK in 2025. On top of that there is no rail access to this place, so realistically you couldn’t get it to English power stations and that’s what you’d have to do because Longannet is closing next year,” said Spaven. Indeed, one of the Cauldhall site’s landowners appears to be investigating creating a solar power farm there instead, which would be incompatible with a coal mine. Scotland then sets a promising example of what could be Europe’s coal-free future.