The security challenge for coal

Coal is considered to be the most abundant and geographically dispersed fossil fuel and therefore a secure energy source.

The challenge

The UK relies heavily on imported steam coal to fuel its coal-fired power stations. In 2013, 82% of our demand was met by imports, with our largest supplier being Russia, which provided about 41% of our imports. Relying too much on imported coal leaves us vulnerable to fluctuating international markets and disruptions to supply due to geopolitical disturbances.

Domestic coalmines

Our domestic coalmines met about 21% of industry demand for steam coal in 2013. We imported around four times more coal than we produced.

In 2013, the UK Coal Forum estimated UK underground coal reserves to be at around 3,685 million tonnes. We also have surface coalmines, but these require planning permission to exploit. It is typically less expensive to import coal than it is to mine it.

The solution

We could improve the security of our coal supply in several ways: by diversifying import sources, by exploiting domestic reserves or by reducing our reliance on coal as an energy source.

Diversifying our import sources would spread the risks of price and supply. The UK does have its own coal reserves, so global supply and demand can only affect our energy security up to a point. If international prices rose or supplies were to fall to where importing coal became uneconomic or impractical, it is likely that mining domestic reserves would become more cost-effective.

UK coal reserves

Coal fired generation without CCS technology is falling in the UK as a result of environmental regulation. Several plants have closed over the past few years and more will close in the short to mid term. Coal's share of the energy mix will decrease over this time and reduce its contribution to the overall security of our energy supply. In the longer term, if coal with CCS is commercially viable, then coal fired generation can increase and contribute more to security of supply.