The story of coal goes back a long way but, sadly, the future cannot continue like the past. It somewhat pains me to admit that, as I come from a coalmining community. Midlothian’s coalmining fabric is as entrenched in the community as the black strands in my Midlothian tartan tie, which I am wearing today. Dating back to the 12th century, the earliest extractions were by monks at Newbattle Abbey. The first Victorian super pit, the Lady Victoria colliery, still lives on as the National Mining Museum Scotland in Midlothian. Certainly, to anyone looking to visit, I would highly recommend Midlothian over Edinburgh, because Midlothian is clearly where the heart is.
Coal is no longer king, although realistically it will still have a limited role to play in the energy mix as we continue down the decarbonising pathway in a sensible and phased manner. It is currently still used in blast furnaces, domestic heat generation, food and drink production, chemical production and electricity generation, and 14.5 million tonnes of coal were needed to meet demand for energy generation alone in 2017. Like a veteran actor, the roles for coal are becoming fewer and fewer. Instead of frantically scraping the earth for more, it is better to gradually and graciously retire from the scene and hand the stage over to the players of the future.
Coal comprised just 2.8% of the UK’s primary energy demand in 2019, down from 16% in 2000. By comparison, we have seen more than a tenfold increase in renewable energy generation since 1998—particularly from offshore wind—driven by large, unforeseen cost reductions. That and other emerging technologies, including the potential role of hydrogen to help decarbonise heat, is where our energies should lie.
What there will not be under the Scottish SNP Government’s watch is any kind of fracking or any unabated new coal power generation. The last coal power station in Scotland closed in 2016. Should there be any new application, it would not be considered without having carbon capture and storage technology in place. Donald Trump liked to talk about trains loaded up with “beautiful clean coal”. It is a nostalgic image, and he certainly used it a lot when trying to win the votes of those in the industrial belt—understandably, those areas need optimism for future jobs—but the term is nebulous and it is unlikely his definition of clean coal included the trapping of carbon where it cannot do any harm. According to FactCheck.org, just 0.1% of American coal-fired capacity uses carbon capture technologies.
While they are not the key solution, some of the carbon capture and storage technologies could be needed to keep global warming below 1.5˚C. According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Scotland could have a competitive advantage. The Scottish Government’s energy strategy committed to work with the industry to assess the opportunities for existing infrastructure we already have in Scotland’s industrial clusters. Depleted gas fields have vast carbon storage potential, and projects are well under way, although progress has been hampered in the past by poor investment from the UK Government. I hope that the Prime Minister’s new-found enthusiasm for a green revolution in UK energy priorities may more closely align with the Scottish Government’s priorities and that they can work together to support the carbon capture, utilisation and storage strategy.
As we work to cut emissions, I recognise the need to support our industrial bases and focus efforts on new jobs and economic opportunities that the green industries will bring, making sure that change is inclusive and we bring people with us. This is where the Government have gone wrong in the past. The proud coalmining communities of Midlothian were devastated during Thatcher’s era, and I am sure the motivation was not to clean up the environment. Pits were run down and closed with nothing but promises of the dole queue to replace them. Long and bitter disputes during the miners’ strikes and the poverty and suffering they caused were entirely avoidable. Instead, the Government at the time were itching for a fight, and they certainly got one.
In October this year, the Scottish Government announced pardons for miners who suffered from unfair convictions during the picket line disputes of 1984 and 1985. I have called for the UK Government to do their bit to close that chapter by finally agreeing to an inquiry into what happened during the policing of the strikes. They should help heal the wounds of the past.
The future of communities such as mine may not be built on coal, but it will be built on the backs of those miners and families, and their legacy lies in the grit, determination, warmth and comradeship of the people. Midlothian was forged in coal, and it makes us a fantastic workforce for the industries of the future.
Indeed, the old mines could still have a direct role to play in powering the economy, tackling fuel poverty and heating our homes, but in less conventional ways. For example, the HotScot project, developed by the University of Glasgow, is looking to tap into geothermal energy contained in disused flooded coal mines across the country. It is believed that heat trapped in the 600 cubic kilometres of disused mines throughout Scotland’s central belt could meet up to 8% of our domestic heating demands, and extracting it could create almost 10,000 jobs while slashing household bills.
Geothermal is a project that Midlothian has a long history of looking at, having commissioned a study into it in 2004, and the Scottish Government looked into it again in 2013. Unfortunately those projects were not viable at the time, although they were then exported to Spain and Holland, where they were adopted. I would encourage anyone who gets the chance to engage with a chap called Stevie Gillespie, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of these things.
The transition from deep mining, a high carbon activity, was economically unjust for our coal communities, closing down not only the pits but the local economies, with enormous and long-lasting negative social impacts. The move to a low carbon economy could be a just one, if we choose to harness geothermal energy from the mine water that has flooded pits such as Bilston Glen and to tackle the industrial legacy that has left the surrounding communities behind. We can tackle the food and fuel poverty of our coal communities by tapping into this rich new source of energy, by installing district heating schemes in new and existing housing and by supporting local food production using heat to grow vegetables. Along the Forth estuary and the Clyde, we can capture and convert the heat to feed our people, producing food from the river banks instead of having people go to food banks. There are challenges to overcome, but exciting projects such as these could turn abandoned mines from liabilities into economic assets that could be an integral part of the green renaissance that we seek to build. We just need the commitment to make it happen.