Britain goes 60 days without coal-fired power generation

As of midnight today (10 June), Britain has had no coal-fired power generation on its grid for a full two months - the longest period since the Industrial Revolution.

Pictured: The Cottam coal power station, which closed permanently in October 2019. Image: EDF

Pictured: The Cottam coal power station, which closed permanently in October 2019. Image: EDF

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


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