Working towards a sustainable environment

Coal has historically been at the cornerstone of the UK’s electricity mix, but the first three months of 2019 saw the electricity grid clock up 650 hours of coal-free generation – more than was achieved during the entirety of 2017.

BEIS claims that reaching this many coal-free hours during winter is an unprecedented achievement

BEIS claims that reaching this many coal-free hours during winter is an unprecedented achievement

The progress was revealed late last week as part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) latest energy trends report, which documents how the UK’s energy mix is changing on a monthly and a quarterly basis.

According to the document, the UK completed 650 hours with no coal power being on the electricity grid between January and March 2019. The nation completed its first 24-hour period free from coal-fired electricity in the summer of 2017 and achieved a 55-hour stint last spring – but BEIS believes the Q1 figures mark a first for coal-free generation during the winter months.

It is worth noting, however, that overall power demand during Q1 of 2019 was found to be lower than during the same period in 2018, largely due to unseasonably warm temperatures in February. This will have made it easier for gas, renewables and nuclear to cover much of the UK’s electricity needs.

The report additionally reveals that around two-thirds less coal by weight has been burned to generate electricity in the UK so far this year than what was used between January and April 2018. Around 0.5Twh of coal has been burned for this purpose since 1 February, which BEIS claims will put the UK on track to break all previous coal-free generation records in 2019.

Responding to the report, Energy and Clean Growth minister Claire Perry said: “Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, which is why we’ve committed to phasing it out entirely from our energy mix by 2025 as we help lead the world in the transition to cleaner technologies.

“This year we’ve already gone almost one month without coal to meet Britain’s electricity needs – more than the whole of 2017 – as we continue to seize the economic opportunities of moving to a greener, cleaner economy.” 

An ambitious transition?

The publication of the figures come at a time when the UK Government is receiving mixed responses to its low-carbon energy policies.

On the plus side, the latest Government statistics revealed that the renewables share of generation reached 33% in 2018, an increase of 3.9% compared to 2017. Overall, low-carbon sources (renewables and nuclear) accounted for 52.8% of total generation in 2018. 

These findings led the operating firm for National Grid to claim that Great Britain’s electricity system can operate as a zero-carbon grid by 2025, owing to a decreased reliance on coal generation and the emergence of new “smart” technologies.

However, other new figures published by BEIS last week revealed that UK is on course to miss its fourth and fifth carbon budgets by 139 and 245 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) respectively, leading critics of the Conservative Government to argue that its current energy policies are not sufficient for the UK to align with the Paris Agreement.

Particular anger was directed at the recent decision to build a new deep coal mine facility in Cumbria – the first of its kind in the region for 30 years. Owing to the fact that the Government has committed to eliminate coal from the energy mix by the end of 2025, the £165m facility in Whitehaven will likely be in operation for less than six years.

Sarah George