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How closing coal-fired power stations undermines the North's development

Closing coal fired power stations may have unintended consequences on housing and development as the cost of pulverised fuel ash goes through the roof, says Sam Thistlethwaite

In 2008, while developing its next-generation airliner the A380, Airbus was determined to improve passenger experience by making the cabins as quiet as possible.

On paper this seemed like an obvious improvement; the reality was that during those early test flights, every delicate noise generated from the toilets reverberated around the cabin. This is just one of a number of high-profile examples of the law of unintended consequences in action – and planning is no stranger to these.

The government’s recent declaration that coal-fired power stations will be gone by 2025 will be welcomed by many. In March, the last remaining coal-fired power station in Scotland at Longannet, was closed and with it the indigenous Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA) supply also ceased.

PFA is the material you collect at the bottom of coal burners. It’s like the remnants from a barbecue. Speak to those who work within the ground stabilisation and remediation industries and you will be told how perfect PFA is as a product: it’s light, largely inert, easy to transport and store, and used to be inexpensive.

But as coal-fired power stations in Scotland and the north-east of England have closed, the cost of obtaining PFA in these areas has grown 400 by per cent in the past 12 months. Material now has to be sourced from locations south of the M62.

“Pulverised fuel ash has been traditionally used to fill former underground coal workings”

The irony is that development costs are increasing in those areas that have felt the cut in coal production the hardest. PFA has been traditionally used to fill former coal workings to provide a stable platform for vital housing.

So by cutting off the local supply of PFA developments, costs are greatly increasing. On tight, small-scale sites in particular, the increased costs could make the difference between development going ahead or not.

PFA is just one of a number of ash products generated from burning coal that feed into a variety of markets linked to the construction sector, including cement production. There is evidence that the same cost implications currently affecting the PFA supply market are also affecting these sectors.

The list of unintended consequences caused by this change in energy policy will grow. Alternative minerals to fill the gap could be assessed; existing stockpiles of PFA will increase in value and ultimately the financial appraisal of development proposals will need to be reviewed, leading to perhaps a reduction in the provision of affordable or starter homes. What is certain is that what is being seen in the North will spread south.

Sam Thistlethwaite is associate director of engineering, environmental and mining consultancy Wardell Armstrong


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