Britain goes 60 days without coal-fired power generation

Pictured: The Cottam coal power station

Official National Grid data confirmed the milestone, which has been partly attributed to the impacts of Coronavirus on energy demand and generation.

When Britain’s lockdown was announced in late March, domestic electricity demand increased but national electricity demand plummeted as offices, public buildings, manufacturing lines, restaurants and retailers closed. National demand is around 12-13% lower on a daily basis than it was this time last year.

Responding to these trends, National Grid took Britain’s four operational coal-fired power plants off the network. The last of these facilities came offline on 9 April.

It is worth noting that seasonal factors are also at play. Temporary shutdowns of coal plants during lower periods of demand in spring have long been performed and, in 2019, resulted in 650 hours of coal-free generation over a three-month period.

However, with National Grid claiming that it is unable to forecast when any of Britain’s coal plants will come online again, and given the UK Government’s recent decision to bring the ban on domestic coal-fired power generation forward from 2025 to 2024, experts are hailing the announcement as a climate milestone.

“Yet another record-breaking coal-free run in Britain highlights the fact that the fuel is simply not needed in a modern energy system,” Energy and Climate Change Intelligence Unit (ECIU) analyst Jess Ralston said.

“At the same time, the surge in renewable generation and extensive plans to expand the nation’s fleet of cheap and clean energy sources show that there will only be one direction from here.

“Recent tests of an increasingly flexible energy system during sunny bank holidays in lockdown, all of which have been dealt with without issue, show that the grid is ready to move quicker than many thought possible. The question is now whether policymakers keep pace with this to encourage further investment into clean energy sources.”

Energy transition

Britain experienced its first coal-free day following industrialisation in April 2017 and, since then, has broken its coal-free generation records several times. 

However, given that the previous record, set in June 2019, was a little more than 18 days, 60 days is a significant feat.

Research by Carbon Brief in May concluded that domestic renewable generation accounted for 37% of electricity supplied to the network in 2020 so far, compared to 35% for fossil fuels. The remaining 28% is accounted for by a mix of domestic nuclear generation (18%) and imports (10%).

This picture continues the trend painted by the Government’s latest official energy figures, which cover July-September 2019. During this period, generation from renewable sources surpassed generation from gas for the first time, and domestic generation from coal met just 1% of demand.

As part of its plans for economic recovery from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government is reportedly mulling the creation of a dedicated fund for reskilling Brits to work in the renewable energy sector, coupled with additional investment in these sectors to assist with its expansion.

Sarah George

Comments (5)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    While this is a good milestone we do have to take it "with a pinch of salt". The salt being "what is the true environmental cost of compressed wood pellets as used by Drax?" and "what is the breakdown of the 10% of imports?"

    As the wood pellets are harvested, processed and transported using oil they can hardly be called Low Carbon. A cargo ship crossing the Atlantic uses thousands of litres of Heavy Fuel Oil. A truck uses hundreds of litres of diesel. A chainsaw tens of litres of petrol.

    If the imports are coming from Germany (for instance) some of that will be from coal, and dirty brown coal a lot of the time.

    A milestone but one that has to be tempered at this time but within a short time we will be generating electricity without burning any coal at all. Not using Gas though will take a far longer time to achieve.

  2. Ben Burton says:

    Just replacing coal for old growth forest (Drax) and also burning more gas.

  3. chris yarrow says:

    Sorry, Ben and Keiron, you are largely wrong. The woodchip comes from plantations, not "old growth," and also wood waste from manufacturing which in recent years was wasted. Sure, chips take some energy to harvest and transport, but so do the spuds on your plate. There are already electric chainsaws on the market, which can be charged with renewably-sourced electricity. What will you complain about when the cargo ships are fired by biofuel?

  4. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @Chris – when they make a cargo ship that runs on hydrogen, wood chips or even back to sails then I won’t complain, and I’m not complaining now just pointing out the 500lb pink gorilla in the room.

    To give you some idea of how much heavy fuel oil a cargo ship uses a "Capesize" ship of 205,000tonnes displacement uses 69,000kg of fuel oil per day to make 14kts (1kg is roughly 1 litre of oil). The Atlantic from New York to Liverpool is 300Nautical Miles. At 14kts that is a 9 day steam. Which is 621,000kg of fuel oil per single journey.

    Sure potatoes take energy to harvest and transport but I buy my spuds from UK growers so the energy footprint is not Trans-Atlantic and are you 100% certain that "old growth" forest is not or has not been cut down in SE America? Yes Ironbridge biomass plant does use forestry/timber waste as its fuel but Drax certainly doesn’t.

    Sadly there are a lot of so called "Green" projects out there that are distinctly brown when you look at the big picture and factor in everything.

  5. Richard Young says:

    Excellent news but beware the Drax story as importring woodchip from Canada is a logistics nonsense and burning the woodchip releases CO2 previously trapped in the wood – it is not CO2 neutral. Drax would be better converted to use UK RDF as we produce more than we can burn at the moment and send much to Denmark when it should be used here to produce much needed green electricity and heat.

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