Coal made Britain great. It fuelled the Industrial Revolution and powered the first steam engines, but it is one of the dirtiest fuels there is in terms of carbon dioxide and the various noxious oxides of sulphur and nitrogen.
At present, coal-fired power stations such as Drax and Didcot account for about 15 per cent of electricity produced by British power stations. Drax accounts for 7 per cent of the UK's annual electricity needs, enough to power about seven million homes.
It is almost certain that the amount of electricity generated from coal-fired stations will dwindle significantly over the next 20 years, whatever the Government decides over the future of nuclear power.
In 1950, about 90 per cent of Britain's energy needs were met with the help of burning coal. In 2000, gas was the biggest sector, supplying about 40 per cent of our needs, with oil coming second with 32 per cent and nuclear filling the gap by providing 9 per cent of the country's power.
The "dash for gas" in the 1970s and 1980s helped to keep energy prices down, reduce pollution and cut carbon dioxide emissions - but our North Sea reserves of natural gas are running out.
Coal was cheap and plentiful, but costs have risen as mines have gone deeper. Coal-fired power stations are also relatively inefficient at producing electricity. A new coal-fired plant would only have an efficiency of about 40 per cent, meaning that 60 per cent of the chemical energy in a lump of coal is lost during its conversion to electricity. …