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Back in fashion?

Is coal the future fuel for UK electricity generation?

AS THE government puts together its delayed Energy White Paper, industry is increasingly turning to coal, a move which could see it overtaking gas as the UK's dominant fuel.

Gas is currently used to generate 37% of Britain's electricity while coal lags closely behind with 34%. But the reopening of coal mines, developments in power station technology, commissioning of new boilers and a rising gas price, all point to coal increasing its market share.

Next month the government will publish its latest White Paper aimed at solving the discrepancy between energy installations reaching the end of their life and replacements coming on line.

Nuclear power and renewables are generally not thought able to bring enough energy on stream fast enough to plug the gap. Gas - as highlighted in last year's Energy Review - is an obvious frontrunner especially with Lique- ed Natural Gas plants and processing facilities becoming popular round the world.

But North Sea gas production is running down leaving the UK increasingly reliant on imported energy and fuel.

Recent evidence suggests coal, despite its reputation as a lumbering outdated technology, can solve the short term problem. It is reliable, exible and can give security of supply.

According to the International Energy Agency ficoal is the most abundant fossil fuelfl. At current rates of production, proven reserves will last 164 years.

And contractors and operators say a new plant can be built in 48 to 50 months.

Ef- iency at existing plants can be boosted by installing supercritical boilers which, according to Doosan Babcock director of technology and engineering Les King, require the plant to come off line for just 18 to 21 months.

Unlike other sources, coal is also easy to stockpile, making it possible to guarantee security of supply.

Indigenous mining, although still expensive, is showing possible signs of a turnaround as the mothballed deep shaft Hat-eld colliery restarts production a decade after closure and less then a year after Aberpergwm colliery was reopened.

Energy giants have shown increasing interest in coal by funding new, more ef-cient boilers for their coal -red power stations. RWE is installing them at its Tilbury plant, Eon at its Kingswood plant and Scottish & Southern Energy at its Ferrybridge plant.

There are also moves to encourage more investment in coal technology. Industry experts argue that the Emissions Trading Scheme, which has let polluters off lightly this year charging just £5 for a tonne of carbon, needs to be extended beyond 2015 and reach a rate closer to £12.50 a tonne to encourage further investment in clean coal technologies.

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