Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tech Talk - Coal mining continues to produce

Sadly I was away from home last week to attend a family funeral in Northumberland where, for the past nine generations including mine, our family have been miners. The funeral was for my father’s sister, Linda, who had documented early life in the mining village of Ashington in her books “A Tune for Bears to Dance To,” and “The Pit Village and the Store.” The latter was made into a docu-drama for British Channel Four television. The hotel at which we stayed was next to the Woodhorn Mining Museum which has been built around the colliery offices from the old mine. The rest of the property has been turned into a nature park – with a little twist.


Figure 1. Part of the old mine site, now the Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, with a 40 acre lake. Note the wind turbines in the background – all but one of the 14 were turning during my stay. (Hotel on the right)

The site is also now home to considerable bird life – including over three dozen swans that I counted as I meandered around the lake.


Figure 2. Some of the birds on the lake at Woodhorn

Much of this part of Northumberland has changed considerably since the time – over 50 years ago – that I was an Indentured Apprentice in the National Coal Board working at Seghill Colliery, though on day release once a week to Ashington Technical College. One of the greater changes is illustrated in the background to a painting of my father that my aunt painted.


Figure 3. My Dad as Undermanager at Ashington (note the yard stick, the safety lamp is hidden by the coat). (Linda McCullough-Thew)

The large mounds are the pit heaps which were scattered all around the road as the bus carried me from Newcastle to the pit. They are all gone now, and the land is restored and, as the pictures above testify, now visually contaminated by the latest form of energy generation, though that doesn’t seem to worry the red squirrels and the geese.


Figure 4. Pit heap dominating the miners houses (Sunderland Public Library)

I thought of that as the recent reports on the devastation that mining creates are once again headlining the problems as new and enlarged lignite mines are developing in Europe. The transition to mining lignite, which contains considerable quantities of water and is a geological precursor to the black bituminous and anthracite coals that are preferred, is coming because it is considerably cheaper than alternate sources and nations have it at hand, instead of having to spend currency on importing alternate and increasingly expensive fuels from elsewhere. The reason that lignite is attractive is that the black coal seams that used to be mined in much of Europe have been mined out at currently economic depths, and lignite – even though less energy intense – has become an economically viable alternative.

To mine the surface deposits Europeans rely on the Bucketwheel Excavator (video here) with one machine replacing 40,000 men with picks and shovels (the way I was initially taught to mine). The overlying rock and soil (overburden) is first removed and stored, and then, once the coal has been removed, the land is restored with very stringent requirements for the condition of that restoration, so that in many cases the stone walls around the fields are replaced and the appearance of the land is similar to what was there before.

At present surface mining is becoming the dominant method for coal production. The thick seams in Wyoming and Montana have huge reserves, and the coal is very simple to mine and remove. Once mined it is trucked away from the machines and loaded into rail cars which then carry the coal around the nation. Because this coal has a low sulfur content it has proved competitive even against the more local coals of the East, which must often now be expensively mined from the underground. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted two counties in Wyoming now account for 40% of the US coal mined, while underground mines are closing in Appalachia.

After seeing a drop in coal production of around 9% as coal fired power plants were replaced by natural gas in the 2011 to 2013 time frame, the EIA is now projecting that US coal demand will increase by 3.6% this year, as natural gas prices rise. This will be followed by a 2.5% decline in 2015 as the new EPA regulations bite harder in driving the closure/transition of power plants. However US natural gas prices continue to be much lower than those in most of the rest of the world, and thus, as the WSJ notes , overall coal production in the USA is likely to stabilize around current levels for the next three decades, while domestic demand reduction is offset by increasing demands for coal from other countries which will continue to find it a cheaper alternative.

Much of the alternative replacement fuels for coal (and in some cases nuclear) are presumed to be from the increased levels of shale gas that are being produced in the United States, and which are projected to become domestic sources of fuel in many other countries around the world , including Europe. However while the plans and actions to close coal fired power plants proceed apace the rate and scale at which alternate sources of energy, particularly European shale gas, will appear are much less certain.

And in the interim, as coal mines have found better ways of processing the coal to meet power station demands, the potential for growth still exists, as the recent example in the Illinois Basin shows, where Sunrise Coal are planning to open a new underground mine in Vermillion IL this year, producing around 3 million tons of coal a year. The mine will use room and pillar mining to ensure that there is no surface ground subsidence, which can be a problem in the Illinois Basin.

And those who anticipate that China and India will reduce coal demand in order to overcome the problems that they have with air pollution, should remember that air pollution in the UK was at least as bad in the early 1060’s but by changing the way in which coal was burned the air was cleaned, and Britain continues to rely on coal for a significant portion of its electrical power.

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