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This issue: has the UK missed the chance to exploit its coal reserves?

Coal's missed opportunity

Alan Lott's letter (Vol 3, #10) relating to the hydrogenation of coal rang many bells with me. I have used the phrase "an island built on coal" many times, especially to successive UK energy ministers in the 1970s and 1980s, with little success.

I was deeply involved with the Association of British Mining Equipment Companies, at a time when its members were among the major British exporters. My own mining electrical company was a major supplier to the National Coal Board and we exported worldwide, but our major customer overseas at the time was SASOL in South Africa, with whom we started our association in1955.

SASOL eventually moved to Secunda where it sank four coal mines and began production of coal while setting up the hydrogenation plant alongside the mines. The four mines produced about 75 per cent of the total UK output at the time!

There was a 7km long stockpile of coal to back up the process plant and avoid shutdown. During the period of sanctions against South Africa in the latter stages of apartheid, SASOL supplied all the fuel for the country. The company has gone from strength to strength and now has its own chain of filling stations, not to mention its logo on Springbok rugby shirts.

SASOL was a far-sighted company and when it learned of my company's development of 3.3kV flameproof equipment at the request of the NCB it was immediately interested; the existing coalface voltage was 1100V. Sadly, the UK Mines Inspectorate would not certify the equipment, despite pressure from the NCB.

SASOL asked us to apply for certification in South Africa, which we did and the equipment was certified in six weeks. SASOL immediately ordered this equipment and other UK manufacturers of shearers, conveyors etc followed with 3.3kV versions. Within a few months of commissioning, SASOL was achieving world record outputs. The equipment was subsequently certified in the UK.

Mr Lott refers to the German achievement during the Second World War. I'm sure he, and most other people, are unaware that a pilot plant to produce 'oil from coal' was built at Cumnock in Ayrshire during the war - and shut down as soon as the war in Europe ended.

In the late 1980s, the NCB did set up a pilot plant at Point of Ayr colliery in North Wales, I understand later selling a 50 per cent share to US General Electric. I am unaware of the present position; I suspect it has closed since it depended on the NCB mines in the Midlands.

There are certainly considerable reserves of coal in the UK but time and cost would now be major factors and much of our expertise in mining has gone. Anyway, such factors are probably too complex for politicians to understand so I say, with great sadness, that it is not very likely to happen. What an opportunity we have missed.

WM Ritchie FIET, by email

Charge of the IT brigade

'Engineers out, IT pros in', says one of the headings in 'Getting connected' (Vol 3, #12). Oh, how history repeats itself. First we had accountants telling us to watch prices and trying to run companies with disastrous results. Now we have the turn of the IT brigade.

Their required level of engineering competence will need to be substantial in that they will need to learn one end of a spanner from the other. When will all self-styled 'engineers' realise that skilled engineers are here to stay?

IT can only tell you, when asked about a problem on a computer, to switch it off then switch it on again. If only engineering was that simple.

Doug Michael TMIET, by email

Electric cars

It looks as if the vehicle of the near future will be driven by an electric motor and the power source reservoir will be a battery instead of petrol or diesel. The best bet seems to be lithium-ion batteries but, as any camcorder owner will know, these only last three or four years at high usage, the same as any other rechargeable battery.

In fact in the article 'Think electric' (Vol 3, #12) one manufacturer states that these batteries will have to be replaced every two years. Again, a camcorder owner will know that a new battery, lasting an hour on one charge, could drop to near half this after two years.

With hundreds of millions of electric vehicles replacing their batteries every couple of years, we will be up to our backsides in used lithium-ion batteries.

Of course, this situation will only last for a few years because the source of lithium, as with oil, will be depleted and a new type of vehicle engine will have to be developed - perhaps hydrogen. The trouble with that form of energy is that the motorways could finish up looking like war zones.

Keith Deal MIET, Felixstowe, Suffolk

Two serious drawbacks of electric cars are their limited range and their long recharge times. These may not matter for the daily commute, school run and shopping but long journeys would be very inconvenient.

One solution would be 'electric motorail' or electric trains, ideally powered by low carbon electricity. The motorist drives to an e-motorail terminal where his car is put on a rail transporter and plugged into the electrical system of the train. The motorist rides to another e-motorail terminal and then completes his journey in his fully-charged car.

The French railway system already offers a non-electric motorail service and it would be simple to adapt this service to e-motorail.

Chris Bright CEng MIET, West Bridgford, Nottingham

Tongue twister

Following your recent articles on written and spoken English, I would like to highlight a piece of gobbledegook that was provided to me on a recent Health & Safety Risk Assessment course about a legal definition of what is "reasonably practicable".

It apparently is a judge's summing up of the concept of reasonably practicable in the Edwards v the National Coal Board case: "Reasonably practicable is narrower than physically possible and implies a computation between the quantum of risk on the one hand and time, trouble and expense of safeguards on the other, and if a gross disproportion can be shown, the duty is discharged."

This seems to indicate if it costs too much a risk assessment needn't be done. However, what this really means is that there has to be a balance between risk, likelihood and severity measured against cost, time and complexity of implementation.

D Little, by email

Solar's true value

Geoffrey White (Letters, Vol 3 #11) is unduly pessimistic about the case for solar thermal. In answer to his question of who would invest in a system knowing that the returns are likely to be low - "Me, for one!".

I had such a system installed two years ago, partly because I had to renew a hot water system anyway. It is reasonable to offset the cost of other options in arriving at the extra cost of using solar in the case of new build or when renewal is necessary. Also, the VAT quoted by Mr White is incorrect - it was 5 per cent, even for an installation on an existing building. Overall, the cost was £3,600 net of grant and I would have had to invest at least £600, so the net cost was £3,000, which gave me a mains pressure system capable of delivering up to 18 litres per minute.

Overall, I consider the return to be closer to 3 per cent than 4 per cent at current energy prices (I use off peak electricity for the non-solar portion), which compares well with leaving cash in the bank, although financing it by borrowing would, I agree, be less attractive. One can do more supplicated investment calculations to arrive at a net present value based on assumptions about future energy costs; these look much more attractive, particularly if energy prices are expected to rise faster than inflation.

Not all investments are made for economic reasons and it is satisfying to have taken out a reasonable chunk of demand. There is a feel-good factor and I hope a future purchaser of my property might agree.

John Keepin MIET, Swindon

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