A day without coal


Figure 1: Contribution of coal to the UK national grid 15-21st of April 2017 [Source: National Grid]

On Friday, the UK went a full 24 hours with all of its coal fired power stations turned off. The first time the UK has operated without coal since the industrial revolution. Indeed coal has been an important energy source in the UK since the 1600’s. So this is a bit of a mile stone.

That said, it needs to be put in the proper context. The UK coal industry has been in decline for quite some time now. Even before Thatcher’s confrontation with the unions, coal was in decline. More recently quite a few of the UK’s coal fired power plants have begun to convert to co-firing with biomass. And coal fired power stations are increasingly used only for load following or peak load power. And naturally, late April is a time of low electricity demand.


Figure 2: The UK’s energy mix for electricity production, 1920-2016 [Source: Carbon Brief, 2016]

Certainly some credit must be given to the rise in renewable energy. Over 2016, more UK electricity was generated by wind energy than came from coal. And Scotland closed its last remaining coal plant last year and has been steadily running at about 59% renewables for its electricity for some time now.

But of course, this is not to suggest the UK is 100% renewable, there’s still a lot of fossil fuels on the grid, notably natural gas. Generally natural gas is cleaner and has a lower carbon footprint than coal, although there is some controversy with regard to shale gas and its carbon footprint. And the Tories recent cuts to renewables, as well as their attempts to tax solar power, means the grow of renewables in the UK has slowed somewhat. And brexit is inevitably going to make the situation worse. So its not victory cigar time yet.

My comment would be, great news, but what’s the long term plan? Cutting coal out of the equation is one thing, but not if it means creating a gap in the grid. Because my concern would be that if something doesn’t fill that gap, it will be all too tempting to fill it with another generation of coal or gas fire power stations at some future date. There is still a lack of joined up thinking in the UK with regard to energy policy. And until we get that sorted out, I worry that the progress made might end up being reversed if we aren’t careful.

But certainly this is an historic mile stone. One of those things we were assured could never happen, has just happened.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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8 Responses to A day without coal

  1. I am most concerned at the element of this that relies on importing power from the various European generating resources. How will that be effected by the BREXIT disaster?

    • daryan12 says:

      Certainly energy prices are going to go up, not least because we do import fuel from overseas. Most of the UK’s gas imports come from Norway, but we do get about a few GW’s reasonably consistently from the continent, which is now 20% more expensive. Also while we don’t import much gas from the east, obviously we’re still at the mercy of international gas prices, if those change for whatever reason, our gas prices go up.

      Also there’s long term implications, given that anything the EU now decides to do could seriously impact on the UK’s energy supply and we won’t get any say in that. In the event of any sort of crisis, the UK will be the first country cut off from supply for political reasons.

      The only thing we’ll be “taking control” of is higher bills and a box of candles.

  2. Pingback: Energy Management

  3. jfon says:

    France went for three weeks last year with no coal, but no headlines were printed because it’s par for the course. If they’d been able to finish building the reactor-based grid planned in the seventies and eighties, that would be every week. Their two large coal plants were built after heroic resistance from the notoriously pig-headed Bretons and Vendeans prevented the last two links in the network from going in.
    http://www.rte-france.com/fr/eco2mix/eco2mix-mix-energetique – aout 1 to 22, filiere charbon. Pull down the calendar, hold mouse over first day of august, then run it down to the last day.

    • daryan12 says:

      ….And Norway and Iceland have been 100% renewable without coal for decades and they don’t have to deal with the issue of decommissioning all of those nuclear reactors, nor the major problems the French are now facing in terms of replacing all of their reactors as they hit the end of their service life….

      • jfon says:

        Norway and Iceland are rainy, vertical, and deserted. The French will get another twenty years out of their reactors, if they’ve got any sense. After which they’ll be in the same situation as everyone else, cause that’s about how long wind and solar last, and if anyone’s still building fossil burners we’re all screwed.

  4. Pingback: 2017 a year in review: The death of coal | daryanenergyblog

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