Climate crisis: UK hits coal-free record for power generation amid coronavirus lockdown

Closure of fossil-fuel plants and fall in demand due to Covid-19 sees CO2 emissions cut by one-third

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 28 April 2020 11:02 BST
Drax power station in North Yorkshire is one of just three remaining operational in Great Britain
Drax power station in North Yorkshire is one of just three remaining operational in Great Britain (Getty)

Britain has gone without coal power for 18 days in a row – the longest period since the industrial revolution.

The milestone was recorded as demand for power fell almost 20 per cent compared to the same period last year, as the majority of businesses remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The result is a cut in the UK’s CO2 emissions of around one-third, according to analysis by climate website Carbon Brief.

While the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations have been offline, renewable sources of energy have been the largest source of domestically-produced electricity, contributing 37 per cent, while gas contributed 32 per cent and nuclear 22 per cent.

The remaining 9 per cent has been imported from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Coal has contributed less and less to the power mix in Britain as plants have been brought offline, with the country on course to exit coal-fired power by 2025.

Coal usage typically drops off in warmer months, and since last summer, the largest contribution coal has made to the UK’s energy was at the end of January, when it made up 6.9 per cent of the power mix.

As recently as 2015, on many days of the year, coal contributed more than 50 per cent of the power used by the grid, and it still made up 25 per cent of the total power mix in 2016, according to records kept by Drax Electric Insights.

The first coal-free day was recorded in 2017, and until this month’s record, the previous longest period without coal was in May 2019 when coal power contributed nothing to the grid for two weeks.

Overall, coal contributed just 2.1 per cent of the country’s total power mix in 2019.

Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit said: “Today’s record coal-free run is another remarkable milestone in the decline of coal power in the UK, and it won’t be the last.

“No longer are there questions around the ability of grid operators to keep the system going. Instead, attention is turning to rapidly learning as much as possible from conditions where low-carbon power dominates.

“Analysts have suggested that the coronavirus crisis will accelerate the energy transition, as systems with renewables contributing most to power output offer valuable practice in managing the grid of the future.”

He added: “It is now just a couple of years until the end of coal in the UK, with gas set to play a mere bit-part in power generation by the end of the decade. It is moments like these that can provide valuable insights into keeping the lights on as we move towards a net zero economy.”

The world’s first coal-fired power station, the Edison Electric Light Station, opened in London in 1882 and coal remained a constant source of power until 2017 – a period of 135 years.

The opening of the Edison Electric Light Station at Holborn viaduct came two years after the world’s first hydroelectric power generation scheme, which was developed in 1878 at Cragside in Northumberland, by William Armstrong. It was not strictly a commercial venture, primarily being used to light his own house, but Armstrong was an early advocate for renewable energy and even hypothesised about future solar power generation.

He believed coal “was used wastefully and extravagantly in all its applications”, and as early as 1863 he predicted Britain would cease to use coal within two centuries.

After the closure of two plants in March 2020, just three coal-fired power plants remain in Great Britain: Drax, Ratcliffe and West Burton, and also one, Kilroot, in Northern Ireland.

All are due to cease making contributions to the grid within five years. Meanwhile, the decision to allow the UK’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years, in Cumbria, has been attacked as being incompatible with the country’s climate targets.

The £165m Woodhouse colliery in Cumbria received cross party-backing in March 2019. The mine will not be used for power generation, but for the steel industry.

Under current plans the mine will aim to process 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year, which will be made available to the UK and European steel industry, which currently relies on imports from the US, Colombia, Canada and Russia.

However, a judicial review challenging Cumbria County Council’s decision to approve the plans for mine has been given a provisional date in July. It will take place at Manchester’s High Court, depending on the coronavirus situation.

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