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Britain goes two months without burning coal amid lockdown

Britain has gone more than two months without burning coal for electricity, the longest period since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

The National Grid last used electricity from the UK's coal-fired power stations on 10 April 2020. During April and May, renewables and gas were the biggest sources of energy.

The reasons for the drop in coal use are complicated, and lockdown measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic certainly contributed. As many people stayed at home, avoiding offices and public transport, demand for energy dropped by about 20%. Britain's four remaining coal-fired power plants were the first thing to be shut down.

Britain's carbon dioxide emissions have dropped too, as coal burning is one of the dirtiest forms of energy production and it drives climate change.

Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Museum, says, 'This is great news, as coal has the largest carbon footprint per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced.

'It is a sign of us both reducing usage of electricity at this time of year but also likely reflects the increase in renewables in the sector, especially solar and wind power.' 

How is the UK being powered?

Coal use has been dropping quickly in recent years, and many are predicting that the coronavirus lockdown could mean an end to all burning in the UK very soon as it becomes economically unviable.

From January to March this year, the UK Government reported that renewable energy sources provided 43.5% of the country's electricity, a record high. Gas created 33.9%, nuclear 17.2% and coal 4.6%.

During May 2020, the Britain's National Grid became coal-free for the whole month, with renewables again proving to be the biggest energy source, supported by nuclear and gas.

In the first six months of the year it has been good weather for renewables: it has been particularly windy and sunny, but this won't be the case all year round. Renewable power sources are also becoming cheaper and easier to run, and demand for electricity has also been low as the country entered lowdown.

However it isn't all good news. We also imported some of our electricity from other countries, including the Netherlands and France, some of which is still generated using fossil fuels.

What is renewable energy?

  • Renewable energy sources include wind turbines, solar power, geothermal energy, hydroelectricity, tidal power and the burning of biomass.
  • Low-carbon energy sources include all the renewables above and nuclear power.
  • High carbon fossil fuels are coal, oil and gas. To reach our zero-carbon goals, the UK needs to phase out these three forms of energy production entirely.

How did we get here?

For a long time, coal has powered the western world. The UK, Europe and America have relied on it to create economic growth since the Industrial Revolution.

In 2008, around 80% of the Britain's energy came from coal, 13% from nuclear and just 7% from renewables. There were 19 large coal or oil-fired powered power stations.

But there has been a big change over the last 12 years, as coal-fired power stations have gradually been shut down, partly for economic reasons.

It took until April 2017 for Britain to go a full 24 hours without burning coal for electricity – the first time since the 1880s. Just three years later, it has been two months and counting since we burned coal, and it is estimated that coal-fired power stations in the UK will all be shut down within the next five years.

Although electricity demand has collapsed across the globe since March this year, with the coal sector bearing most of the brunt, the move away from coal began well before the pandemic took hold. Last year set a record for the largest fall in electricity production from coal globally.

In 2019 the USA also saw annual energy consumption from renewable sources exceed coal for the first time since before 1885, largely because coal plants have become a risky investment. 

What next?

The UK Government has committed to net zero emissions by 2050. Phasing out coal, the worst emitter of carbon dioxide, is a great start. More will need to be done alongside, including making energy production more efficient.