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Coal use in UK rises in 2012

March 08, 2013
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The double-dip recession in the UK last year had far-reaching implications and affected every sector of its economy. Energy was no exception, according to a new report released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which found that the use of coal in the UK soared by 32.5 percent in 2012.

The significant increase was driven by market conditions and prices rather than a change in policy. While the use of coal was going up the demand for gas dropped by 33.8 percent, as electricity generators turned to cheaper alternatives, boosting the use of coal. However, according to the DECC this trend is unlikely to persist and figures recorded in 2012 were probably the peak of coal use, as the end of this month will see the shutdown of four of the biggest coal-operated facilities as part of the UK's program for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Since coal power stations are responsible for double the amount of greenhouse gases that natural gas stations emit, closing them down is a key step in Britain's quest for green energy adoption. The biggest single source of emissions in the UK, the Drax coal power station in North Yorkshire, plans to switch to 50 percent biomass.

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A transition to natural gas might be a problem for the UK, as well as for other European countries, mostly due to the prices, which are much higher compared to those in the United States. While the price of natural gas per unit in the United States in June 2012 was $2.10, in the UK it reached $9.90, but prices can fluctuate significantly, according to the International Energy Agency. Meanwhile, liquefied natural gas (LNG) was $12 in the Mediterranean and $17 in Asia. Europe is currently the biggest market for U.S. gas, while just a small proportion of the natural gas supplies in Europe come from its own gas fields in the North Sea. Those are combined with supplies of natural gas through pipelines from Russia.

Reducing the number of U.S. coal power stations has already had a positive effect on the country's greenhouse gas emissions, which fell by 4.6 percent in 2011. Since the United States has been closing its own coal power stations as it increasingly relies on natural gas as a source of energy, its coal output has had to be shipped elsewhere to overseas markets. The UK has apparently been a key recipient of the production, despite EU regulations that closed older coal power stations.

According to Nick Molho, head of climate & energy policy at WWF-UK, although the rise in use of coal in Britain and other parts of Europe was a cause for concern, it was not likely to be a long-term course of action. It is important to note that an increase in coal use is by no means linked to the construction of new coal-fired power plants, so this was just a reflection of changing market conditions, he told the Responding to Climate Change website.

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