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Explainer: How much coal does Northern Ireland use and where do we get it?

Coal imports soared last year by more than 20% compared to 2020, according to the NI Statistics and Research Agency. In its latest report on coal, published at the end of February, it was revealed that 1.8m tonnes of coal and other solid fuels were shipped through Northern Ireland’s main ports, up from around 1.5m the previous year.

How much coal does Northern Ireland import?

The amount of coal and solid fuels imported was 72% above the lowest recorded in 2009 and in line with the amount brought in during the first year the figures were compiled, which was 1.7m in 1988.

While the price fluctuated – and has increased in the last number of weeks to close to $400 a tonne – the total cost of the imports was approximately £140m, at an estimated price hovering around $100 a tonne.

Where does it come from?

Total imports of coal, briquettes and coke into Northern Ireland in 2020 was £125m. But trade figures reveal it also exported £85m, suggesting the province is a transit point.

Northern Ireland directly imported £14,4m worth of coal, coke and briquettes from Russia in 2020, or 11.5% of the total. Russia was the third largest importer after Ireland, £33.9m, and Venezuela, £32.3m.

But Ireland directly imports a large percentage of its coal from Russia and some of that may then cross the border. However, Northern Ireland exports more than £37m to Ireland, according to the HMRC figures.

According to the Central Statistics Office, the Republic imported €211m of coal last year. Of that amount, the Republic paid €140m for Russian coal.

Where is it consumed here?

Approximately two thirds were for domestic or industrial use, with the remainder destined for electricity generation, such as the Kilroot Power Plant.

According to a 2020 Energy in Northern Ireland report, one council area (Mid Ulster) accounts for almost one-third (32.1%) of all coal consumption, industrial, domestic and electricity generation.

Almost all coal consumed in Mid Ulster (92%) was by the industrial and commercial sector, while in Belfast the figure was 1%.

What were the reasons for the increase in imports last year?

A sharp rise in energy demand following a bounceback from the Covid lockdowns, higher gas prices and a less-than-expected output from low carbon sources, including wind.

Why is Russian coal popular?

It is both low in sulphur and cheaper. However, there are other sources of low-sulphur coal, including in Europe, though they may not be as cheap.

Low sulphur is not what is dubbed "clean coal", which usually means capturing carbon emissions from burning coal and storing them. Carbon capture and storage is extremely expensive, both on the capital and maintenance fronts.

How does NI compare to others in the UK?

We lag far behind the other countries of the UK when it comes to coal use. Overall, in 2020, the UK either imported or produced for use 6.2m tonnes, of which this region used 1.5m. In 2020, coal fulfilled 2.9% of UK energy demand, while the figure here is around 6%.

Latest figures for coal used to generate electricity, dating from 2018, reveal that in 2013 the percentage was about a third, similar to the UK as a whole and the other regions. That dropped to just over 14% by 2018.

However, it was down to 5% in the UK overall and zero in Scotland as it mothballed its last coal-powered electricity generation. There are only four left in the UK, three in England and Kilroot, where it is planned to switch to gas by 2024.

How many power stations do we have and what do they run on?

Gas-fuelled Ballylumford is at the tip of the Islandmagee peninsula. It’s owned by EP UK Investments and is our biggest power station with an installed capacity of over 730 MW

Gas-fuelled Coolkeeragh in Londonderry is owned by Irish state-owned ESB and has capacity of around 470 MW.

Kilroot, which is mainly coal and oil fuelled, is in Carrickfergus. It’s owned by EP UK Investments and has an installed capacity of some 700 MW.

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