Energy Institute

The story of coal in Ireland

Ireland has a long history of using coal as a source of energy; as a fuel for home fires, to smelt iron ore and fire steam engines in the 18th century, to manufacture gas for lighting, cooking and heating in the 19th century and, in the 20th century, as a dominant fuel in electricity generation.  The first coal field opened in Leinster in 1638 and coal continued to be mined from various deposits in Ireland until 1994. Today, Ireland is dependent on importing coal from abroad, the majority of which comes from Columbia. With the Air Pollution Act 1987 banning the sale and use of smoky coal in urban areas, approximately three quarters of the coal we imported in 2015 was used in electricity generation in the only coal-firing power plant in the State, Moneypoint. While over the short term Moneypoint is expected to continue to rely on coal, over the next ten to fifteen years it is likely that Moneypoint will be repowered to a low carbon power generating facility.

Coal mining began in Ireland in the Leinster coal field in 1638. The Leinster coal field covers parts of Kilkenny, Carlow and Laois. Ireland was an early adopter of steam power with the first steam engine in Ireland being used to pump water in a mine as early as 1740. Coal mining at Arigna in County Roscommon began in 1765 and lasted until 1990. The coal was originally used in the smelting of local iron ore from about 1795. The iron works ran until 1838.

In the era of steam power and the introduction of coal gasification into Ireland (from 1800 to 1850) Ireland imported coal to produce steam for power and gas for lighting. Imported coal was used for the manufacture of towns gas for over a century and for home heating. Coal was eventually phased out for gas manufacture to be replaced by oil based technology, as adopted by the Alliance and Dublin Gas Company in 1968.

In the 1950s Arigna coal was used to fuel Ireland’s only power station using indigenous coal. It was commissioned by ESB at Arigna in 1958 and ran until the end of the 1980s. At its peak it burned 55,000 tonnes of Arigna coal per year and the power plant employed 60 people.

After the 1973 oil crises, and due to Government concerns for the security of fuel supplies for electricity production, ESB was authorized to construct a 915 MW coal fired plant at Moneypoint, Co. Clare. According to ESB this station burns about 2 million tonnes of coal annually. Because of the low cost of coal internationally and of the low price of carbon permits within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in the period since 2005, the Moneypoint coal-fired station remains, even today, the source of a fifth of Ireland’s electricity. According to the Eirgrid website in May 2016, coal-based electricity accounted for 21.5% of Ireland’s electricity generation in the previous month. This is similar to the contribution from wind but less than natural gas from which 48.5% of our electricity was generated.

In the residential sector, Mary Harney, as Minister for the Environment, is credited with legislating to improve Dublin’s air quality by banning the sale of smoky coal in 1990. Similar bans in other towns and cities followed. This led to a gradual reduction in bituminous coal use in open fires. Smokeless fuels based on coal continue to be marketed in these “smoke free” towns and cities.

Due to Climate Change concerns, the EU is determined to increase the cost of CO2 emissions to operators which may eventually phase out coal based electricity generation unless coal stations are fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

Colliery coal mine

18th & 19th Century

In Ireland there were four worked coal deposits, the Leinster Coalfield, the Slieve Ardagh Coalfield, the Kanturk Coalfield and the Connaught Coalfield. All have ceased production with the last being closed in 1990. Mining is the Leinster Coalfield reportedly started in 1638. Coal mining at Arigna started in 1765 and at Ballingarry in 1826. Although these coal reserves were mined, the coal seams were very restricted due to their worked seam height compared to British coal mines. Thus, since the mid-19th century, and still to this day, Ireland relies on coal imports to meet its coal requirements for home heating and power generation.

Prior to 1815 the majority of industrial energy in Ireland was derived from small water and wind powered mills and was used to grind grain into flour or power looms. With the industrial revolution (1760 to 1840 approx.) and the introduction of steam engines, the use of steam power for industry increased driving a rise in demand for coal to raise steam in boilers. As Irish coal resources were limited, many coal intensive industries such as iron works, grain mills and textile works were located in Irish ports to ensure easy access to imported coal. As a result, coal gradually displaced water and wind power for industry as it relocated and developed at port locations.

Once coal gas could be manufactured reliably through the carbonisation of coal, production of town gas from coal became widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially the gas produced was used for lighting, cooking and heating but also to fuel steam engines for industrial power. By 1824 there was one coal gasworks in Dublin and the first streetlights were lit by coal gas a year later in 1825.

Coal steam train

Dun Laoghaire, 1959

20th Century

Coal was widely used in domestic households for heating and cooking at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Due to urban development and industrial expansion, the output of coal gas increased between 1904 and 1924. The price of gas was not uniform, however, partly reflecting differences in the cost of coal and its availability. Railways, with their coal-fired steam engines peaked at this time with around 3,500km of track across the country.

A coal fired power station at Pigeon House was commissioned in 1903 and later taken over by ESB in 1929.

A 1921 report estimated the total quantities of coal used in Ireland at that time as 4.7 million tonnes – but this was less than the amount of peat used. For comparison Moneypoint currently burns around 2 million tonnes of imported coal annually.

The dominance of coal as fuel for Dublin industry from the late 19th Century was threatened by extra duties on coal in the 1930s and the wider availability of electrical power. Coal use declined with the outbreak of war which impacted on the importation of coal. Coal had mainly been used to manufacture gas, to power steam engines in a variety of manufacturing industries, and as a fuel in foundries.

Between 1914 and 1932 a total of 37 gas companies went out of business, partly due to the difficulties in acquiring imported coal, and partly because of the advance of electricity generation. Between 1934 and 1939 gas production increased again and with the onset of World War II, shortages of coal for domestic use led to an immediate upturn in the consumption of gas. The widespread rationing of coal led to a shortage of fuel for cooking and heating. Coal supplies fell and soon even gas was only available at reduced amounts for certain hours. Irish steam engines were forced to run on poor quality Irish coal, wood or unsuccessfully with peat.

The period between 1926 and 2011 saw a huge increase in household formation. The number of households increased almost threefold from 600,000 to 1,600,000. Over this period the fuels used for home heating moved from solid fuels (coal and peat) to oil; and natural gas fired central heating.

With the post war upsurge in energy demand other fuels were becoming more popular for home use and high coal prices in the 1950s meant that the surviving gas companies moved away from coal carbonisation to oil, since oil prices had fallen to a point where it became competitive with coal. Dublin Gas converted over to oil in 1968. Additional electricity generation plant mix in the form of indigenous coal and coal/oil units among others were built in tandem with growth in energy demand for heating, industrial development and higher living standards in the 1960s. A coal fired generating station was built at Arigna burning 55,000 tonnes per year of indigenous coal.

The oil crises during the 1970s and 1980s highlighted the need for diverse fuel sources. Fluctuations in the use of coal stemmed from a rise in central heating systems in houses and the development of the natural gas network.

With the landing of natural gas from the Kinsale Head field, and the development of the 160 km gas pipelines to Dublin, the Pigeon House generating plant was converted from coal to oil/gas during this time. Diversification was also seen in domestic energy use and in 1977 the government introduced a grant scheme for the installation of domestic solid fuel central heating. By 1987 78% of homes in Dublin used solid fuel (coal, peat, wood) as a principal source of heating.

The 1990s brought with it the continued reduction in the use of solid fuels, partly due to the switch from the use of solid fuels in open fires and back boilers to more efficient oil and natural gas central heating and the use of enclosed solid fuel stoves. With increasing awareness of environmental issues, people became more concerned about the health risks and air quality issues from winter smog which was caused by smoke and sulphur dioxide emissions from the burning of coal. The Department of the Environment introduced legislation to control the sale and supply of smoky coal. The Air Pollution Act came into effect in 1990 with a ban on the sale and supply of bituminous fuels in the Dublin Area. This was expanded to more areas as its effectiveness in reducing emissions became apparent.



Domestic coal power plant

21st Century

By 2004 solid fuels accounted for only 15% of residential energy use. Despite short increases due to a rise in industrial coal use and during a time of high gas, low coal and low ETS prices, the overall trend of coal use has been one of decline, particularly in the residential sector. New legislation was introduced as late as 2011 including a provision to limit the maximum sulphur content of bituminous coal and increasing the penalties for breaching the regulations.

Smokeless coal continues to be supplied in Dublin and other cities covered by the ban on smoky coal. Solid fuels complying with the smoky coal legislation are supplied by Arigna Fuels, Bórd Na Mona, Stafford’s and others. Smokeless fuels are manufactured in Arigna, site of the original Arigna coal mines but the products are now produced from imported materials with some production being exported.

The rise in sales of solid fuel stoves with higher efficiency compared to open fires has ensured a continued market for smokeless fuel in Ireland, however, overall coal sales have declined in comparison to previous years when coal use in open fires was common.

By the census of 2011 about 43.7% of households reported oil as the primary source of home heating while 33.8% of households used natural gas.

Ireland’s remaining coal fired power plant running in 2015 was built at Moneypoint in 1987 as part of a fuel diversity strategy. Following the oil crises at a time when Ireland was highly dependent on imported oil and with growing demand for electricity the decision was made to build Moneypoint and to link its output to the East Coast via transmission lines which now form a key component of the electricity generation and transmission system. Rated at 915MW, it is one of Ireland’s largest power stations. At full output the station consumes approximately 7,000 tonnes of coal per day.

In April 2016 Moneypoint reportedly provided 21.5% of Ireland’s electricity demand.

Moneypoint power station was recently refurbished to comply with EU environmental regulations and standards. In 2008 the ESB completed a major environmental equipment upgrade (costing €300 million) to make sure the plant complies with the strictest environmental requirements. In 2013 it emitted over 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere but levels have stayed lower than the permitted amount under the EU-ETS. It is considered to have a useful life until at least 2025 and burns around 2 million tonnes of imported coal annually.

Coal has been mined and used in Ireland for four centuries. Because of the availability of more convenient fuels such as electricity, oil and natural gas its use is in decline as a fuel in domestic households. Imported coal is still, however, an important source of fuel for electricity generation because of its low cost as of 2016. This low cost relative to other fuels may be due, in part, to the rise in the availability of shale gas which is displacing coal for power generation in the USA. The market for coal is also affected by the shutting down of older coal fired generation plants in Europe. Some closures are caused by plant owners who could not afford the significant investments needed to meet the EU emission requirements. The ESB completed environmental upgrading of Moneypoint in 2008 at a cost of €385 million and this combined with any other upgrading measures assures the technical life of the station until ~2025.