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Energy Shift – Britain Moves Away from Coal

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The UK's grid has gone for a record-breaking two months without coal-fired generation

Since the 1880's Britain has relied on coal-fired electricity generation. On Wednesday 10th June, Britain hit a significant landmark: the country went for two entire months without burning coal to generate power.

According to the UK's National Grid, the electricity network has now run without burning coal since midnight on the 9th April. This coal-free period has beaten the country’s previous record of 18 days, six hours and ten minutes, which was set in June 2019.

Ten years ago, around forty per cent of Britain’s electricity came from coal-fired power stations, but since then the country has gradually moved towards renewable energy. When Britain was forced into lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, electricity demand dropped sharply - “Sunday demand” -every day of the week. In response the National Grid took the four remaining coal-generation plants off the network.

Britain has been investing heavily in renewable energy. Back in 2010, only three per cent of the country's electricity came from wind and solar. Some commentators thought that renewables would never be a major player in the power supply mix. Fast forward to 2020 and the UK has the biggest offshore wind industry in the world. Last year, construction of the world’s single largest wind farm was completed off the coast of Yorkshire.

At the same time, Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire - at 3.9 MW capacity, Britain’s biggest power plant  - has started to move away from using coal to burning compressed wooden pellets instead. By this time next year, the plant management hope to have phased out coal completely.

The BBC reports that up to June 2020, renewables have generated more power than all fossil fuels put together,. Renewable energy accounts for 37 per cent of electricity supplied to the network, while fossil fuels have been responsible for 35 per cent. During the same period, nuclear accounted for 18 per cent and imports made up the remaining 10 per cent.

Obviously this is an extreme example but shows the clear trend away from the worst of fossil fuels and towards clean power generation.

Julian Jackson's picture

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Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Jun 22, 2020 9:36 pm GMT

Fascinating that they haven't burned coal for two consecutive months after ages of reliance. This hard shift, hopefully, can be a lesson that moving away from coal, and doing so rapidly, is possible. In the U.S. we're seeing coal begin to lose its prowess to renewable sources. Most threatening to coal right now is wind. 

Paul Chernick's picture
Paul Chernick on Jul 2, 2020 9:41 pm GMT

The end of coal burning is very welcome. But the CO2 emissions from wood are even higher than from coal, especially including the lost sequestration from the trees that are cut down, the energy requirement to dry and pelletize the wood, and the emissions from transporting the pellets across the Atlantic.

Woodburning is not a climate solution.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 6, 2020 11:29 am GMT

But emissions from coal and wood might be treated differently based on the time-scale-- the carbon in a lump of coal has been trapped there for many many many years, whereas the carbon in wood being burned had been recently sequestered by the natural processes in the recent years/decades of its life. The loss of further sequestration, the processing all does need to be taken into account, like you note, but I don't think it's quite as similar as keeping the fossil fuel in the ground, if you will

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