By Kayt Button
I used to have a coal fired Rayburn which I had to continually feed logs and coal to keep my house warm and my water hot. This meant going through perhaps three 25kg bags of coal and a couple of baskets of large logs in a week. And I was just one of the 26.4 million households in the UK (according to the Office for National Statistics). Not all of these households use electricity to provide heating and hot water, but very nearly all of them use electricity. The multiplication of say just 30kg of coal per household would mean the need for 792,000 tonnes of coal per week!
It isn’t just the volume of coal; it’s the need to keep the fire going continually, which means having a constant stream of fuel because electricity cannot be stored.. Whilst today electricity is generated from coal, hydropower, nuclear fuels and a whole host of renewables there is a need to constantly keep generating the power. This supply has to meet the demand however varied that is over the day and the year.. When the national grid was built between 1926 and 1933 nearly all electricity was produced from coal fired power stations.
The Dunston Staithes. Trains would travel to the end of the staithe and pour coal into the ships waiting to transport it out to power stations and other consumers. Photo: M. Dudley
In years gone by Newcastle would have been exporting coal, filling vast ships which would deliver the coal to power stations round the UK and abroad. Loading and unloading ships required man power and was a physical and dangerous occupation for which you had to provide your own spade, and sometimes candles, to shovel the coal flat as it was dropped to the ships to get as much as possible on board.
Today, after the closure of the mining industry in the north-east, the process runs in reverse. The Port of Tyne receives coal from huge ships with massive cranes unloading the coal from the ships. Large vehicles scrape up the last layers inside the ship hold which the cranes cannot reach. Long freight trains line up to take the coal from the port to power stations to maintain constant power generation.
Coal piled on the quayside from the ship to move to storage yards.
Photo: Kayt Button
The logistical operation to keep coal flowing to power stations today is vast. Watching the volumes of coal being unloaded, the mountains of it in storage, and the huge machinery to move it from storage to train helps to understand how much natural resource we are using in our everyday lives. As the piles of coal begin to be transported from quayside to the storage yards, another ship will moor up and everything continues as it is a 24 hour operation.
Unloading the coal ship with cranes.
Photo: Kayt Button
Turning on the light switch, the increasing numbers of electrical gadgets, and technology driving a demand for increased power removes us from the reality of what it takes to produce it; we no longer have to put any effort or even thought into the process. But someone, somewhere is doing the work.
The Port of Tyne is an
Loading trains with coal.
Photo: Kayt Button
exciting, busy, industrious place with 600 acres of land surrounding the River Tyne with both import, and, some export companies. At the height of shipping on the Tyne 1 in 6 of every ship launched in the world was in Newcastle. Visiting the port gives an indication of what a vibrant, busy and industrious place it would have been. There would have been merchants and sailors from round the world, goods piled high on the quayside and so many people, and carts and horses in order to get goods to and from the docks. There would have been a great ship building yards and all the workers that would have employed too. Although not as busy, and with tractors, cranes and scrapers the port is still a vibrant place, which is expanding and diversifying, and still supporting imports and exports and it was a privilege to be there. Find out more at http://www.portoftyne.co.uk/