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Source: UK Telegraph



Coal in the UK is not associated with innovation. It may have a long heritage and a glorious tradition but, in recent times, the industry has become heavily dependent on imports at a time when heavy users of coal are also under environmental pressure to clean up their emissions.

This is where John Atkinson, chief executive of White Energy, believes there is a market opportunity. “What we do can disrupt the patterns of coal consumption and pricing in Europe and therefore it can disrupt the UK market,” he says.

Mr Atkinson, 49, has long been an investor in the coal industry and says the expertise behind what White Energy is now offering to heavy coal users, such as power stations, has its roots in Eighties’ technology in Australia.

That technology has been developed further by White Energy to produce a way of refining low-grade sub-bituminous coal.

The issue, says Mr Atkinson, is that open-cast or near-surface coal contains less sulphur than deep-mined bituminous coal but more moisture, as it has not been in the ground as long.

White Energy, which has its headquarters in Australia, builds plants next to coal mines that convert low-grade coal at source, crushing, drying and briquetting it into an upgraded product with a similar level of energy efficiency to deep-mined coal, while maintaining its low-sulphur characteristics.

From a carbon emissions perspective, he adds, there are therefore benefits to burning the upgraded coal over both low-grade coal and high-grade bituminous coal.

At present, the opportunity in the UK, he says, is mainly in the power stations’ choice of coal. Britain consumed 62.7m tons of coal in 2007, with 84pc of it going to power stations, but of that total, some 43.3m tons were imported, mostly from Russia and South Africa.

Because much of Britain’s coal imports come from open-cast sites around the world, Mr Atkinson says the quality of the coal is less good than if it were deep-mined.

However, in the longer term, it appears that Britain is now poised to expand its coal mining industry.

Freedom of Information requests show that in the past 18 months, 14 companies have applied to dig nearly 60m tons of coal from 58 new or enlarged open-cast mines.

At least six new coal-fired power stations are planned.

If all the applications are approved, some commentators believe that the fastest expansion of UK coal mining in 40 years could see Northumberland and southern Europe become two of the most heavily mined regions in Europe.

Whether Britain continues to import so much coal or mines it itself, Mr Atkinson believes White Energy’s technology has the potential to transform the UK market, allowing coal users to become more energy efficient and emit less carbon.

“This technology has had a 20-year history,” he says. “It has been a long time coming. I don’t think people really appreciated until recently what a disruptive effect it can have.”