Coal – Renewables need it, and why are many so getting coal wrong?

11-03-2021 | By Sam Brown

Recently, a proposed coal mine in Cumbria is under fire for the believed impact it will have on the environment. However, many continue to misunderstand the mine's purpose and how coal is a key ingredient in renewable green technologies.

Why West Cumbria Mining caused outrage?

Next to the COVID-19 crises, Climate Change is easily one of the most discussed topics to date. The increase in CO2 emissions is believed to contribute to rising global temperatures. These temperature increases contribute to more extreme weather and rising sea levels through the melting of land-based glacial ice. 

There has been a massive drive to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources as renewable sources do not emit CO2 into the environment that does not already exist (i.e., carbon neutral). For example, solar panels and wind turbines use energy naturally occurring in the environment and do not emit CO2 during operation. Burning wood from grown trees is also carbon-neutral because the CO2 emitted from the burning of wood was extracted from the atmosphere as the tree grew.

But the announcement of a new coal mine in Cumbria sparked outrage across the media. Many environmentalists who saw the announcement quickly raced to social media to condemn coal mining in the UK. In contrast, many journalists wrote reports on how the UK’s green policy is failing. 

Surely, such action is justified? Coal mines produce coal, and coal is a fossil fuel, and the UK is supposed to be leading the path towards green energy. Burning coal is bad as it produces CO2 that has been locked away deep underground, and therefore, Coal Bad, Green Good!

Coke Coal vs Coal

The media's reaction and many to the new coal mine is undoubtedly shameful and uneducated as those who have reported on the mine do not understand what the mine is being used for; coking coal. For those who don’t know, coking coal is an essential ingredient in the making of iron and steel.

Iron ore is not pure iron, but instead, iron mixed with impurities in the form of oxides (i.e. rust). When iron ore is melted down, it remains an oxide. To strip the iron ore of oxygen, coking coal is added to the molten ore which strips out the oxygen (hence producing CO2), and iron is left behind. From there, the molten iron ore can further have coal (i.e. carbon), added to produce steel. 

How Renewable Energy is Dependent on Coal

Many would agree that burning coal for energy is not a nice process; even if the environmental concerns are taken out of the equation, it is a very dirty fuel that can cause increases in asthma and other lung diseases. 

However, no matter how many environmentalists may hate it, coking coal is essential to modern technology and infrastructure. This theory can be tested very quickly; live a day without using iron, and if you can, congratulations, you don’t need coking coal.

From the structural supports of a windmill to the factories that produce solar panels, steel is an integral part of modern society and makes almost everything possible. No matter how much one may dislike coal, coking coal cannot be avoided.

Are there alternatives to coking coal in the industry?

While there are theoretical methods for extracting iron from iron ore, they are either energy-intensive, or require rare compounds. 

One example of extracting iron without coking coal would be the electrolysis of molten iron ore. However, such a process is energy-intensive and nowhere near profitable for the steel industry. To make matters worse, the process is so energy-intensive that switching to this iron production method would require enormous amounts of energy generation. Ironically, this would have to come from non-renewable sources of energy such as coal, oil, and gas.

How will coking coal help the UK tech sector?

Steel being as important as it is, can help boost the UK sector in several different ways including the electronics field. Albeit not obvious at first, its effect on the industry would occur as a series of steps instead of directly related.

To start, the opening of a coking coal mine would decrease coking coal prices for local businesses. This will encourage the formation of steel producing companies that will be able to offer lower steel prices. The creation of new businesses will open up thousands of job opportunities, which will generate revenue.

However, electronics, and the introduction of smart systems powered by IIoT, could be targeted at coal mining industries in a way never done before. Coal mining is known for its particularly gruesome conditions with recycled hot air, cramped spaces, and potentially lethal consequences should something go wrong. 

The introduction of smart technologies could improve the working conditions for miners. Smart AI sensors can provide early warning systems to ground movements, while predictive maintenance can help ensure that equipment operates without fault. Furthermore, user-worn devices can track the air quality for individual workers and provide health advice. 

Until an alternative for coking coal is found, such coal mines are essential, and even the renewable energy industry requires it. It is a real shame when journalists and activists have knee-jerk reactions to development without properly researching the topic. This new coal mine is nothing to be feared, and if an alternative to coking coal is found, then the topic of its importance can be discussed.

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By Sam Brown