Working towards a sustainable environment

The UK’s electricity grid will have operated without coal-fired power for a fortnight at 3.12pm today (31 May), marking a first since pre-industrial times.

There are 7 active coal-fired power stations in the UK, all of which have been offline for a fortnight. Pictures: SSE's Fiddlers Ferry plant in Cheshire   

There are 7 active coal-fired power stations in the UK, all of which have been offline for a fortnight. Pictures: SSE’s Fiddlers Ferry plant in Cheshire   

The operating firm for National Grid, National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO), confirmed the milestone this morning, claiming that coal-free generation is set to become “the new normal” over the next five years.

According to National Grid ESO, the UK’s previous coal-free record period, achieved on 9 May, lasted for 193 hours and 25 minutes. By contrast, the nation’s new coal-free stint will have been going on for 336 hours and counting by 3.12pm.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>We can now confirm that Great Britain’s electricity system will pass the fortnight mark for no coal generation this afternoon! The last coal generator came off the system at 3.12pm on 17th May – meaning we will achieve <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#coalfreefortnight</a> at 3:12pm today!!</p>&mdash; National Grid ESO (@ng_eso) <a href=””>May 31, 2019</a></blockquote>
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In total, May has seen the UK’s power grid undergo three 100+-hour coal-free runs, from 1 May – 9 May; 9 May – 15 May and the current stint, which began on 17 May. National Grid ESO claims there have been more hours of zero-coal generation in May than in the months of January, February and March combined.

It is worth noting, however, that are seasonal factors at play, given that the UK has long performed temporary shutdowns of coal plants during lower demand periods in spring.

“As we predicted when we first broke the record for a week of no coal generation at the start of the month, events such as today’s will become the ‘new normal’,” National Grid ESO’s director Fintan Slye said.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but operating a zero-carbon electricity system in 2025, whenever there is sufficient renewable generation, is a major steppingstone to full decarbonisation of the entire electricity system. This will enable new technologies and removes barriers to ever-increasing levels of renewables.”

National Grid ESO first announced plans to run a zero-carbon network for the UK by 2025  – excluding Northern Ireland – in April. The firm says it has been planning for the decline of coal-fired electricity and the increase of renewable energy “for many years” by making network improvements and re-assessing how it procures grid operator services.

Cooling down on coal

Great Britain experienced its first coal-free day following industrialisation in April 2017 and, since then, has broken its coal-free generation records several times. In fact, the first three months of 2019 saw the UK electricity grid clock up 650 hours of coal-free generation – more than was achieved during the entirety of 2017.

The dramatic decline in coal generation has been supported by growth in the renewables sector. The latest Government statistics (released last week) 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. 

Responding to these statistics, interim Energy Minister Chris Skidmore said they evidenced the fact that the UK is “continuing to reap the rewards of investing in a thriving renewables sector”, with policy and investor decisions following the Industrial Strategy.

Nonetheless, new research published this week found that the number of jobs in renewable energy in the UK plunged by nearly a third between 2014 and 2017, amid cuts to Government-led support schemes. Since then, uncertainties caused by Brexit and compounded in the hydropower sector by the Government’s decision not to back Swansea’s pioneering tidal lagoon have served to diminish the UK renewables sector’s attractiveness to investors.

RenewableUK’s deputy chief executive Emma Pinchbeck is therefore calling on policymakers and industry to take more ambitious action on “massively” increasing renewable electricity, as the UK prepares to enshrine a net-zero carbon target for 2050 in law.

“We need to move from fossil fuels right across the economy to avoid the enormous risks of climate disruption and to benefit from modern, clean, technologies,” Pinchbeck said.

“We need to act now to build on the coal phase-out and our world-leading renewables industry, including technologies like innovative wave and tidal power and fantastically cheap onshore wind”.

Sarah George