The UK is nearing a coal-free future

Coal used to be a staple of the UK’s energy mix, but it’s becoming resigned to the history books, and has been since the 1990s.

Thanks to increased awareness of climate change and environmental damage caused by coal and other fossil fuels, there has been a concerted effort to stop using them for energy generation. This includes a government-mandated phase-out of coal by 2025.

This shift was gradual to begin with, but it has become dramatic and – hopefully – unstoppable.

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A growing trend

Since 2012, coal-fired electricity generation has been on a rapid decline, and there have been plenty of renewable energy generation records set as a shift in energy generation has emerged.

  • April 2017 – The UK has its first 24-hour period without coal since the industrial revolution in the 19th century
  • January – December 2017 – Renewable energy contributed a total of 4% the UK’s power
  • January 2018 – There was a new wind power generation record set (breaking the previous, set only in December 2017)
  • April 2018 – The UK had a record-breaking three consecutive days without coal; the longest streak since the 1880s
  • July 2018 – The UK totalled 1,000 hours without coal burn – a five-fold increase in the 200 hours without coal generation just two years before.

The seemingly exponential growth in the number of coal-free days on the UK’s energy network is thanks to a combination of factors.

The 2018 summer heatwave helped to boost solar-powered energy generation (one of the UK’s hottest summers ever, according to the Met Office). Additionally, installed solar capacity is greater than the installed coal capacity: 13.1 GW versus 12.9 GW.

With coal mandated to come off the UK’s energy system by 2025, more low-carbon generation will be needed to fill the gap while ensuring we meet our targets set out in the Paris Agreement and the 2008 Climate Change Act.

 

How to get coal off the system

Many economists recognise the role of a carbon price in disincentivising carbon-intensive forms of energy generation. This is done by charging emitters of carbon dioxide a set rate per tonne of CO2 emitted.

Drax, the parent company of Opus Energy, has called for a higher carbon price to help reduce emissions. A strong carbon price can make coal-fired electricity generation uneconomical.

This in turn creates space on the network for renewable and low-carbon energy sources, helping to reduce the carbon intensity of the network overall.

For example – gas is one such energy source preferred over coal, being about 50% less carbon intensive. It also contains fewer other air pollutants and greenhouse gases than coal. Biomass is also used as a reliable, cleaner energy source which complements the UK’s growing portfolio of intermittent renewable energy sources including wind, solar and hydropower.

Currently, coal use on the UK network is low. It has fallen sharply since 2012, and this is expected to continue as long as carbon pricing remains robust.

Over the long term, gas could also be priced off the energy system due to carbon pricing, with more sophisticated renewable technologies filling the gap. It is hoped that renewable energy, and supporting storage technologies, would be sufficiently developed to meet demand.

As well as calling for a more robust carbon price, Drax Group is part of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a global coalition of charities, businesses and NGOS aiming for “the rapid phase-out of traditional coal power”.

You can read more about Drax’s efforts to decarbonise in this open letter from CEO of Drax Group, Will Gardiner.

 

The future

As climate change (and the human contribution to it) continues to drive debate, it is increasingly important that we continue to shift away from coal-powered energy generation.

Coal is the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels, so removing it from energy mix will reduce environmental harm to a degree, but it’s not the only area which needs to decarbonise. After all, the energy sector represents only a percentage of global greenhouses gas emissions.

This means a fuller, more ambitious approach is needed in the future. Reducing the emissions associated with other sectors, such as transport and heating, is instrumental in reducing emissions.

While electric vehicles are growing in popularity, most cars are still fuelled by petrol or diesel. These are derived from crude oil, a fossil fuel, and transport is estimated to account for around 25% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. While we rely heavily on petroleum transport, this will continue to be the case.

And it’s not just transport; there are more contributing strands to decarbonisation. Commercial and residential heating, as well as industrial processes, are also carbon-intensive sectors.

Increasing energy efficiency is important, as is understanding and moderating our energy consumption. This is part of the thinking behind the roll-out of smart meters, which enable energy consumers to see their real-time energy use and its cost.

 

Opus Energy is part of Drax. Together, we’re committed to changing the way that energy is generated, supplied and used for a better future.

Interested in learning about the UK’s energy mix in more detail? Visit electricinsights.co.uk

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