Overview

Coal is a fossil fuel formed from plants that were buried millions of years ago. The high-temperature, high-pressure conditions underground transformed the plants physically and chemically, forming coal.

Generating coal power

Coal contains energy that the plants absorbed from the sun – burning coal releases this energy. It can be used to heat water to generate steam, which is then used to drive a turbine to generate electricity.

Coal is generally considered to be a reliable energy source for generating electricity. In 2013 around 29% of the world's electricity was generated using coal, and in 2014, coal-fired power stations supplied about 29% of the electricity used in the UK.

Coal is abundant but finite. Generating electricity using coal is currently relatively inexpensive, but the cost is affected by world coal prices, which can be volatile.

EDF's approach to coal

We see our coal-fired power stations playing a critical role in bridging the energy gap between now and when we can deliver low-carbon generating capacity.

We believe the UK should use a diverse range of fuels – nuclear, renewable energy sources, and coal and gas fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology – and that this is important for the long-term security of electricity supply.

Carbon emissions from coal-fired stations are a concern during this transition. If the UK were to close all its existing coal-fired stations in the next few years, it’s possible they could be replaced with new gas-fired stations.

While the carbon footprint of these new stations would be lower than existing coal-fired power stations, it might still be substantial. Early replacement of coal plant could therefore lock the UK into higher-carbon generation for the lifetime of the new fossil-fuelled plants.

From the early 2020s onwards, more low-carbon power plants – such as those powered by nuclear and renewable energy sources – will be built. Retaining existing coal-fired stations for a few more years can therefore make their direct replacement by lower-carbon technologies more likely.

 We intend to continue operating our existing coal-fired stations while it is economical to do so, implementing best practice in all aspects of operation and environmental performance during their remaining lives. These existing stations can play an important role during low-carbon transition: by providing flexible and reliable generation while the new low-carbon generating plants are developed and deployed.

Effectiveness

Coal is considered to be the most abundant and geographically dispersed fossil fuel and therefore a secure energy source. But it is still a finite resource.

Burning coal produces high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology could present a possible solution, although it has not yet been proven to work on an industrial scale. The UK Government is encouraging investment in CCS to reduce emissions.

CCS is also expected to increase the cost of constructing a coal-fired power station, and to reduce its efficiency. However, to meet emissions reduction commitments, UK Government policy is not to approve new coal-fired power stations unless they incorporate CCS.

Waste ash from coal-fired power stations is often sold to the construction and civil engineering industry, where it is used to make cement.

Experience & expertise

Coal supplies

EDF Energy buys coal from suppliers based both in the UK and abroad. The Fuel Supply team is responsible for buying UK coal, while EDF Trading has a fully integrated coal and freight business, sourcing supplies from South Africa, Asia, the US and eastern Europe.

Our coal sites

We operate two coal-fired power stations: Cottam and West Burton – both located in Nottinghamshire, close to the market town of Retford.

Cottam power station

Cottam has a generating capacity of 2GW. It was the first power station to gain a Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) President’s Award, and has been accredited as an Investor in People since 1996.

In association with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, we have developed Cottam’s ash lagoons into a nature reserve – now a haven for more than 180 species of birds.

West Burton power station

West Burton also has a capacity of 2GW.

Its Discovery Centre offers free environmental education to local schools, and its grounds are home to a wide variety of birds – kingfishers, cormorants, sedge and willow warblers, and sparrowhawks.

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