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Steam engines and the future of coal


I have published the following article in the Newcastle Journal
(paywalled) today:


Three hundred years ago this year, in 1713, some of the very
first Newcomen steam engines in the world were being built in the
North-east to pump water out of mines. One was at Oxclose near
Washington, another a Norwood near Ravensworth and a third at

The Byker one had been commissioned — probably without a
licence from the patent holder in London — by my ancestor Richard
Ridley. It cost a huge sum but proved a great success, clearing the
water from a flooded pit that had ruined more than one previous
owner. Within a few years, much improved by the engineer Henry
Beighton (who doubled the operating speed to 16 cycles a minute),
these great clanking monsters were going up all over the

Their effect was dramatic. Pits became more productive so cheap
energy became a fact of life in the region; metal-workers had a new
market building cylinders and beams for steam engines; machinery
inventors had new customers lured into automation by cheap fuel;
jobs were created outside agriculture, in glass making, salt
production, brewing and other trades. And the great flywheel of the
industrial revolution began to whir.

Within a few decades, Newcastle probably had the highest average
income of any city in the world, and a very high ratio of labour
costs to energy costs. For the first time the economy began to grow
not through an increase in land or labour, but through an increase
in energy and productivity.

An extraordinary surge in human living standards came about as a
result of those engines and continues to this day. The world
economy is expanding at about 3-5% a year even now, largely thanks
to the harnessing of cheap energy in place of cheap labour in
farming, manufacturing and services.

Yet here in Britain we face stagnation. One of the reasons we as
a country are not sharing in this growth today, in my view, is
because we have a policy of pursuing expensive energy: subsidizing
costly and unreliable wind and biomass power, while closing down
coal and delaying gas. We’re in danger of losing much of our
chemical industry industry to North America because of their cheap
shale gas, now one third of the price of gas in this country. Even
computer-server firms are looking to move to the USA, where
electricity is cheaper.

Maybe I am biased, as somebody who still makes money from coal
as my ancestors did. But I have no vested interest in the really
exciting energy opportunity that’s within the North-east’s reach:
offshore coal gasification. For we could do it again. We could
steal a march on the world in the field of energy.

There’s 3,000 billion tonnes of coal under the British sector of
the north sea, says Harry Bradbury of Five Quarter, a Newcastle
University spin out. He argues that it’s soon going to be possible
to turn the offshore oil industry into a coal gasification industry
instead, getting methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide out of that
subsea coal and putting carbon dioxide back in. In other words, a
hugely abundant, potentially cheap, low-carbon source of energy on
our doorstep.

For the North-east this is exciting news. It’s an example of
what Lord Heseltine said recently – there’s an enormous amount of
entrepreneurial energy in the regions waiting to be unleashed if
Whitehall would just stop telling us what not to do.

So don’t let’s underestimate the importance of what our
predecessors on Tyneside achieved for the entire world. It’s the
fashion these days to vilify coal as the root of all environmental
evil, but I think that’s mistaken. Coal and the technologies it
spawned made it possible to double human lifespan, end famine,
provide electric light and spare forests for nature. Because we get
coal out of the ground, we do not have to cut down forests; because
we use petroleum we don’t have to kill whales for their oil;
because we use gas to make fertilizer we don’t have to cultivate so
much land to feed the world.

This country can compete with China on the basis of either cheap
labour or cheap energy. I know which I’d prefer.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist