On Friday Sept 4th I found myself at the Thoresby coal mine at Edwinstowe, north Nottinghamshire — and 2000 feet below ground. I was a guest of Colliery Manager Stuart Hoult (who also took the photographs).
Thoresby is approaching the end of the current workings, but I went to see their new development in the “Deep Soft” seam. They’re investing £55 million in the new seam, and that should see Thoresby in business for the next ten years.
They’re driving a new “roadway” into the new seam, using a tunnelling machine not much smaller than a railway locomotive, and weighing 100 tons. They can move forward well over 100 metres a week through the coal seam. As it progresses, they drive two-metre and longer bolts into holes drilled into the surrounding rock. The bolts, secured by resin, stabilise the strata, and the walls and ceilings, obviating the need for metal arch structures and lining. And the drills which make the bolt-holes, and drive the bolts home, are integral to the tunnelling machine.
Conditions at the face were very hot, and dark, and cramped, and I have huge admiration for people who can cope with working there day after day — people like Shift Manager Adam Lloyd. He asked what Europe was doing for him — not much, I’m afraid, was my answer. One of his colleagues was surprised at a Conservative politician taking a positive view of coal, after Margaret Thatcher’s battles with the miners, nearly thirty years ago. But that was then, this is now.
On the way back to the shaft and the lift, I had the most extraordinary experience. I rode for perhaps a quarter of a mile on the coal conveyor (see photo), face down on the coal. I’m astonished it was allowed in these days of paranoid Elf’n’Safety, but apparently it is. Probably we were going quite slowly, but in that horizontal position, the only light from my helmet lamp, it seemed very fast indeed. And as the flexible conveyor belt rolled over the rollers, the coal ahead of me writhed like a snake, while the rollers under me delivered a none-too-gentle body massage. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
So why am I excited about coal? There is a growing awareness that Britain faces an energy crunch in a few years’ time, as EU rules force the closure of older coal-fired power stations, and most of our nuclear plants reach the end of their design life. The government expects to fill much of the gap with wind, which they plan should deliver up to 35% of our electricity by 2020. This is cloud cuckoo land. 5% maybe, but no serious energy analyst sees 35% as realistic. Renewable energy has its place for those technologies that can be justified in economic and environmental terms (which excludes wind), but they will only deliver at the margin. I believe that future British energy security must stand on two strong legs — home-grown coal and nuclear energy.
Both these industries need to be able to take a confident view of the future, to ensure both investment and the continuity of the skills base. I’m not asking for subsidies, but I am asking for a positive and constructive national energy policy framework to enable the coal and the nuclear industries to plan for the future with confidence. Meantime, I wish the best of luck to Thoresby and its new Deep Soft Seam.
Photo credit: Colliery Manager Stuart Hoult