Page last updated at 20:56 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Coal's future is no longer black

By Reevel Alderson
Social affairs correspondent, BBC Scotland

Scotland's last deep mine closed in 2002 when Longannet in Fife flooded. For many people, it signalled the end of the Scottish coal industry.

But production is rising again, thanks to new technology developed at the power station beside the now disused Longannet pit.

Opencast mining at Ponieil, Lanarkshire
Opencast mining production is increasing using new technologies

The traditional view of how coal was won in Scotland was in deep mines.

It was hard, physical work deep underground: dangerous, labour-intensive and expensive; and it went into terminal decline after the ending of the year-long miners' strike which began in March, 1984.

Longannet beside the Forth had been seen as the most modern pit in Scotland - its coal was fed directly into the power station without ever seeing the light of day.

When the pit closed, the power station turned to supplies imported through the deepwater Clyde port of Hunterston.

Although Scottish opencast pits could provide coal, it was too dirty and high in sulphur which causes acid rain.

European legislation, the Large Combustion Plant Directive, required power stations to clean up; if they failed to do so, their operating hours would be cut, and they would eventually be forced to close.

But Scottish Power, which operates Longannet, is determined to extend the life of the station.

It is investing about 170m in flue gas de-sulpherisation technology (FGD).

It should be complete by next year, and then the company will turn its attention to a process to reduce emissions of nitrous oxides, which will mean investment of several hundred million pounds.

Green coal

Coal is no longer a dirty fuel: it is becoming greener.

And that means generators can turn back to home-produced supplies.

Frank Mitchell, Generating Director of Scottish Power says coal use is growing globally, and so it is a part of the future.

He added: "The benefit of using coal from the UK is that you don't have the long-transportation of coal from around the world. And also, it's in your control from a security point of view.

"Over the last 12 months, we have committed 740m of expenditure to Scottish Coal and other companies producing coal, because we believe there is a future in it."

Scottish Power's Frank Mitchell
Scottish Power's Frank Mitchell says they believe there is a future in coal

Scottish Power burns more coal to make electricity than is currently produced here.

But opencast production is rising beyond 4m tonnes a year - equivalent to the needs of Longannet and the other coal-burning station, Cockenzie near Edinburgh.

Nick Guest, director of Scottish Coal says the new contracts his company has won means the industry is on a much brighter footing.

He explained: "We've increased our production for the next year by 20%; we've opened two sites that were previously mothballed.

We've taken on 140 new men, and we're investing 20m in new equipment last year, and we'll invest another 20m this year".

Coal may no longer be king; but it's no longer the dirty part of the energy equation, and continues to have a future here.

Longannet Power Station is one of three bidding to become the UK's pilot project for carbon capture technology.

If it were to win the government competition, its long-term future would be assured, and with it demand for Scottish coal.

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