2 Forecasting: energy in the future
So far as human society is concerned, the only certain thing about the future is that nothing is certain. The case of the UK deep-mined coal industry (Box 1) illustrates how difficult it is to plan ahead, when lead times for changes in infrastructure are on a scale of years to decades, yet the timescale of political and economic change is commonly weeks or months (or less). These problems are most crucial for the energy industries because without energy nothing functions.
Box 1 UK coal: decline and fall
In an earlier version of this course, which first appeared in 1983, the authors commented:
'In the UK we are fortunate in having large enough coal reserves to produce most of our electrical power — an important factor that has delayed the need to expand rapidly the generation of power from nuclear or renewable resources.'
During the early 1980s, few in the UK could have foreseen the day in October 1992 when the Government announced the immediate closure of 31 coal mines out of a total of 50 still working at the time. Vast, proven reserves of coal were rendered worthless at a stroke, damaging the UK's principal long-term foundation for energy self-sufficiency. Yet the decision was not prompted by environmental concerns, despite a UK commitment at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a couple of months earlier to stabilise or reduce carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels. Nor were the closures determined by Britain's geology, except in so far as thin coal seams hundreds of metres deep were costly to extract compared to imported coal from thicker, near-surface seams.
Ironically, it could have been argued cogently that in the long run the virtual demise of the UK's deep-mined coal industry was a desirable outcome, considering the numerous detrimental environmental impacts associated with its extraction and combustion. Unsurprisingly, there was an outcry in the immediate aftermath of the decision due to the social impact of widespread redundancies on communities traditionally dependent on coal mining, and the widely held view that the sudden closures were a political retaliation for the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85.
The object of the closures was purely commercial: to cut costs to the recently privatised electricity generating companies (and hence consumers), and ultimately produce a smaller, more efficient UK coal industry which would be attractive for privatisation. Cheap electricity was to be generated from cheap, imported coal and new power stations fired by North Sea gas (the 'Dash for Gas'). In fact, the writing had been on the wall for the UK's deep-mined coal industry even before the miners' strike. The decline since 1950 is graphically illustrated in Figure 5: from 170 deep mines in 1984, to 17 at privatisation in 1994, and only 9 by the end of 2004 (although their productivity had doubled since the 1990s). For comparison, both France and Belgium had ceased coal mining entirely by 2004; 120 Belgian coal mines were shut down between 1957 and 1992. Coal industries in most other European countries, including the main producers Germany and Poland, are substantially subsidised.
The abrupt changes in the fortunes of the UK coal industry are a good example of how resource planning and policy depend more upon economic relationships and political considerations than upon geological availability.