Visiting a Sleeping Dragon

It wasn’t the most conventional birthday lunch: tomato soup out of a machine with added coal dust! I was on a tour of the soon-to-be-scrapped coal fired power station at Cockenzie in East Lothian organised by a friend who has worked there for around 30 years and will retire when the plant closes for good at the end of next week. I’m not a big fan of coal fired power stations because of their role in climate change and acid rain, but I was interested to have a look around this piece of Scotland‘s industrial heritage before demolition starts next week.

The power station opened in 1967 and ran for the last time a few days ago on 13th Mar. The plant had to close as after 45 years it was not cost effective to modify it to reduce emissions to the levels required by EU directives. Since generation stopped, a skeleton staff has been overseeing final decommissioning. A bitingly cold wind blowing through the huge shed housing the silenced boilers, coal pulverisers, hoppers and water tanks added to the Marie Celeste feel of deserted work shops, Hi Vis jackets left drapped over railings and tools abandoned on benches.

In its heyday Cockenzie could generate up to 1200 megawatts electricity from four generation units, although latterly this was reduced to 800 megawatts to reduce emissions. The principle of generation is simple: coal is burnt to heat water into high pressure steam which is used to turn turbine blades which turn an alternator generating electricity at 17,000 volts and 50 Hz. Some of the figures behind this are impressive 2000 tonnes of coal crushed and burnt a day; stream at more than 500C and 162 times atmospheric pressure; the tips of the turbine blades glowing red hot as they turn at close to the speed of sound and half a million litres per minute of water from the Forth used for cooling. Dealing with all this created engineering challenges keeping the steam and pulverised coal dust contained in feed pipes. Leaks were inevitable and coal dust and ash lie in sheltered corners of the plant, brushing onto clothes and giving teeth a gritty coating. When the plant was operating dust masks and ear defenders were compulsory, but even then working conditions could be unpleasant. Coal had to be transported into the pulverising units on conveyor belts and unwanted contamination by items such as rock, and reportedly occasionally body parts of unknown origin separated out. Ash from the boilers had to be removed for use in the construction industry or pumped out to settle in lagoons at Musselburgh.

When it closed Cockenzie employed 90 full time staff. Many had worked their way up from apprentices and known the station as man and boy (all of the staff on the operational side of the plant were male – its one of those old fashioned industrial plants with no ladies loos!). The station was a part of their social lives and a second home as well as a workplace. Even with good redundancy or relocation deals closure has been an emotional time for them.

Staff numbers were higher when Scottish Power was a nationalised industry. One of the younger members of our group had never heard of the concept of state ownership of key infrastructure, and was puzzled as to why we should now be giving profits to private investors when previously they had gone back to the government. Undoubtedly some nationalised industries had become very inefficient by the late 1970s as staffing levels and working practices which helped reduce post-war unemployment made operations uncompetitive (the plant roof with its panoramic views across the Forth was a popular sunbathing location on warmer days than this and the warm water from the cooling water outflow ensured a good catch for anglers!) , but this could have been addressed by reform rather than sell off.

At busy times such as maintenance shutdowns numbers at the plant could swell to nearly a thousand. Recently maintenance operations have become less frequent, and notices in Polish around the plant witness that the trademen brought in for this were often from overseas because of the lack of skilled welders and fitters in Scotland. A sad state of affairs in a country once famed for its engineering and manufacturing prowess and something which we surely need to change if we are realize the potential of renewable energy and revitalise our manufacturing sector.

Finally we reach the control room. The warmth compared to the frozen, freezing plant area is a relief. The decor comes straight from a 1960s Bond movie, all bakelite dials, switches and lights with bi-colour formica labels and greyish green enameled metalwork. Only a few computer screens and the remaining supervisor checking his email while controlling the flow of air through the now cold boilers to purge toxic fumes show that this is the 21st century. The rest of the tour group (all men) wander around displaying that peculiar male fascination with knobs and switches. Fortunately they manage to resist the temptation to flick a switch and bring the sleeping dragon back to life.

The closure of the Cockenzie power station will undoubtedly leave a hole in the East Lothian community around it as well as in the lives of the people who worked there and proudly regard it as “their” power station. From an environmental point of view the closure is completely sensible, but with Cockenzie’s passing we loose more of the people with the practical knowledge and expertise of engineering which was once such a key part of Scotland’s economy and culture. Looking to the future, Scotland needs to generate electricity to keep the lights on. However this is done we will need to train a whole new generation of engineers if we are to make best use of our resources.

The Cockenzie site is zoned for redevelopment with a gas fired power station at some point in the future. This will continue our reliance on fossil fuels which cannot be desirable given Scotland’s potential to use more sustainable renewable technologies from our abundant wind, hydro, wave and tidal sources instead. However to ensure that Scotland choses an appropriate energy policy for the future we need to be able to tailor planning to our own needs and resources rather than follow policies made in a country with different energy  agenda.