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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

The UK went a week without using coal last week and here's why it matters.

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

The UK went a record 1 week without using coal to generate the UK’s electricity, a feat not achieved since the start of the industrial revolution. It’s a remarkable milestone and we should use it as an opportunity to highlight the positive strides the UK is making in terms of de-carbonizing electricity generation and improving energy efficiency.

Reflecting on the recent extinction rebellion protests which did an important job in drawing attention back to the issue of climate change and the general negative tone whenever climate change is discussed, you can be forgiven for thinking we’ve made no progress in all the years that we’ve been discussing the issue. That is, of course, not the case and so it’s only right that we also celebrate and recognise achievements on the road towards de-carbonizing the UK’s power generation. There's three key things, linked to this weeks achievement which are worth mentioning and highlights the improvements we've made as a country but also the important job we still have to do.

Our energy mix is less reliant on fossil fuels than you might think.

The most reassuring thing to take from this milestone is that it is not entirely a surprise and the National Grid believe we can expect it to become a far more regular occurrence. Coal now accounts for only 10% of Britain's power output and this year has already seen over 1000 hours of coal free generation. As more renewable energy resources enter the energy mix, supplemented by natural gas, this trend will only continue. The National Grid spokesperson agreed with the sentiment saying, “more people have installed solar, more coal is coming off and there’s more wind in the system”. It seems at this rate that we are well on track to surpass the 1800 hours of coal free generation achieved during the whole of 2018. Even at the time of writing this article (9th May) there is currently no electricity being generated by coal entering the grid. You can see supply and demand of power in the UK in real time here.

Annual electricity generation in the UK by source (terawatt hours). Source: BEIS, BM Reports, Sheffield Solar and Carbon Brief analysis.

We are generating and demanding less energy.

This is important because it's something we can all take credit for. It is not fully understood why Britain has seen a drop in energy usage whilst our EU counterparts have seen a steady increase. However, decisions to better insulate our homes, our choice to use LED light bulbs and more energy efficient white goods have all been contributing factors. What's even more impressive is that UK has managed to reduce its energy consumption whilst in a period of economic growth. As a post-industrial economy, this shows real maturity.

According to the research by Carbon brief, UK electricity generation has levelled off since 2000 and has fallen by 16% between 2006 and 2018. This is particularly impressive considering that the UK's population has grown by 10% over the same period of time.

There's still a long way to go.

Electricity demand, generation and consequently greenhouse gas emissions have all fallen over the last 2-3 decades according to data published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). In 2018, UK greenhouse gas emissions had fallen by 43.% compared to 1990 and by 2.5% since 2017. The report states "This is mainly as a result of changes in the fuel mix used for electricity generation, away from coal and towards renewables". So where's the problem you could argue?

In 2018 transport accounted for a third (33 per cent) of all carbon dioxide emissions and the majority of these emissions came from road transport. As we work towards de-carbonising the rest of our energy mix, with road transportation being the key focus, we all need to continue to take responsibility. Here, once again our consumer choices to buy electric and hybrid vehicles, to use car sharing schemes, to use public transport will all have an accumulative impact to remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Just as it did when we decided to switch to LED lightbulbs or the pay a little bit more upfront to buy the most energy efficient refrigerator.

The electrification of our road transport network is incredibly important if the UK is to meet its climate change commitments, which at the moment we are not on track to do. The energy mix is becoming far more interconnected than it ever has been before, partly driven by electrification. Therefore, as energy demand starts to increase with the rise of electric vehicles we will need to generate more energy but the challenge will be to do this sustainably. This is why last weeks milestone is so important on our road to zero carbon energy generation but also reminds us why there is still much more for us all to do.


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