The long goodbye for coal
The world’s first coal-fired electricity generating power plant was opened in London in 1882. After that, it took until 2017 for the UK to go a whole day without using coal to generate electricity. Now, just two years later, the country has officially managed a whole week without burning coal.
From 1:24pm on Wednesday 1st May until 1:24pm on Wednesday 8th May the UK instead relied solely on wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas for its electricity, and set a record in the process. This is a streak unprecedented in the industrial era and Julian Leslie, head of national control at National Grid Electricity System Operator (NGESO), believes that this situation will quickly become the new normal.
Leslie said of the record: “We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon.”
Fintan Slye, director of NGESO, agrees, and said further that “zero-carbon operation of the electricity system by 2025 means a fundamental change to how our system was designed to operate – integrating newer technologies right across the system – from large-scale offshore wind to domestic-scale solar panels to increased demand-side participation, using new smart digital systems to manage and control the system in real-time.”
This is overwhelmingly positive news, though saying goodbye to coal is only the first of many steps that need to be taken. Natural gas is cleaner but still a carbon-emitting fuel and needs to be sidelined in the future. While nuclear is carbon-free, it also produces the most harmful and damaging substance known to science as a waste product; we do not want to use that for any longer than necessary, ideally.
However, lets focus on the good news.
Wind power has become mainstream in the UK and accounted for as much as 35% of national generation over the weekend. The UK’s offshore wind industry in particular is worth a second look; it is the biggest in the world and powers more than 4.2 million homes with capacity for millions more due to come onstream in the next few years.
Solar power is also growing rapidly and is now able to generate up to 21% of the UK’s energy mix according to RenewableUK, a group pushing the UK towards a fully renewable future. To continue to strive towards this target will require ambitious government action regarding the shut down of fossil fuel power plants and incentivising renewable alternatives. The UK has a fantastic chance to lead the world on this as demonstrated by this latest landmark achievement.
It is to be hoped that the country which pioneered coal-fired power can also be the first to leave it behind, and thereby set an example for the rest of the world. In an age where coal power is somehow having a revival despite it being both expensive and polluting, the UK’s successful journey towards its elimination is both practical and symbolic.