‘Thrown to the wolves’: As jobs go green, what does the future hold for the coal industry?

Richard Wilson describes himself as a casualty of climate change. But he doesn’t live in a far-away hot country – he’s from North Yorkshire and has spent a lifetime working with coal.

After coronavirus settles down, businesses are being encouraged to invest in a green recovery.

But Mr Wilson believes not enough is being done to help carbon-intensive industries adapt to a green future, saving jobs like his.

It’s been four years since he left Ferrybridge power station but the anger he feels is still just beneath the surface.

Both Ferrybridge and the nearby Eggborough power station have been decommissioned.

“We were thrown to the wolves,” he says.

“It makes me feel angry and not worth too much but you get over it after a while. There’s some things you can change and some things you can’t”.

Mr Wilson worked at Ferrybridge for 38 years, initially as a chemist and eventually as the performance manager calculating how much coal was used.

He understands that coal – a fossil fuel which generates damaging greenhouse gases which warm the planet – has had its day in Britain.

His frustration is with the failure to turn Ferrybridge into a power station of the future.

He said: “We were in the front trenches. But we weren’t being shot at from the front, we were being shot at from the back.

“It makes you think ‘I’ve worked here for 38 years and was it worth it? Was it realty worth all the effort I put in to keep the coal-fired power station going?'”

“It’s not easy and there’s often times when you’re there at night or there at weekends to make sure people got their electricity.”

Ferrybridge and Eggborough along with Drax were part of a trio of power stations in North Yorkshire – in their heyday they employed thousands giving rise to the area being known as “megawatt valley”.

Only Drax has survived – embarking on a transition away from coal to biomass (wood pellets) which began years before a climate emergency was even declared in Britain.

About 4% of the power generated at Drax came from coal in 2019 and coal use will be phased out completely by the summer of next year.

Drax is piloting carbon capture technology and has set itself the target of being carbon negative by 2030.

The plant’s chief innovation officer Jason Shipstone, who has been with the company for 33 years, says when he joined the company 100% of the electricity was generated through coal.

He admits that riding a green transition isn’t easy.

“These transitions can be difficult. I mean there were two other coal-fired power stations in this area and both have now closed,” Mr Shipstone said.

“I know people who worked there, we all do in the industry and it’s quite a local community of power generation in this area.

“But you know Drax has changed. We have to change. We are in a climate emergency and we do have to decarbonise things.”

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