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Coal responsible for 39% of UK power generation in 2012

26 July 2013

According to data released on July 25 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), coal accounted for 39% of power generation in 2012, an increase of 10% on the 2011 figure. Overall coal consumption, including industrial and domestic use, rose by a quarter from 2011 to 2012. 

In the same period, carbon dioxide emissions rose by about 4%, after years of steady falls. This will make it harder to achieve the government's climate change targets.

Coal is now plentiful and cheap, in part because of the effects of the shale gas revolution in the US. Gas prices there have fallen to as little as $2 per unit, and power generators have built gas-fired power plants to replace coal-fired generation. That has led to large supplies of coal available for export, which has pushed down the price dramatically on the world market. 

According to the World Coal Association, coal's share of global energy consumption is at its highest since the late 1960s. The International Energy Agency has estimated that coal will overtake oil as a fuel within about five years, on current trends.

In the European Union, coal was meant to be penalised as a fuel because of its high carbon content. But carbon prices within the EU's emissions trading system have fallen to record lows because of a glut of free carbon permits issued by member states. 

Another factor behind the increased burning of coal in Europe is the Large Combustion Plant Directive, which gives coal-fired power stations a certain number of hours of operation before they must be closed down. Companies with ageing power plants that would be taken out of service under these rules are rushing to use their remaining hours while their fuel is so cheap.

Last year's rise in the UK's emissions made it the worst performing member state, according to data from Eurostat. It was one of only three member states whose emissions rose – Germany, with a rise of less than 1%, and Lithuania, with a rise of 1.7%, were the others.

DECC's statistics also showed that consumption of diesel for road use exceeded the consumption of petrol by more than 8m tonnes, as more drivers switched their cars to diesel. Until 2005, petrol consumption was always higher than diesel, but higher petrol prices and the perception that diesel is more efficient have fuelled the switch. For the past decade, petrol consumption has fallen by 4.4% a year on average, but diesel use has risen by 2.4% a year over the same period.

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