British power grid notches up first week of coal-free operation

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The UK grid has seen a shift away from coal towards renewables (John Giles/PA)

Britain’s electricity grid has gone a full week without coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the system operator has confirmed.

The new record – the first coal-free week since use of the fossil fuel for electricity began in the 19th century – was set at 1.24pm on Wednesday, a week after the last generator came off the system.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

It comes just two years after Britain marked its first full day without coal, but National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) director Fintan Slye predicted coal-free generation will become the “new normal”.

He said: “As more and more renewables come on to our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to be a regular occurrence.

“We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon.

“Zero-carbon operation of the electricity system by 2025 means a fundamental change to how our system was designed to operate – integrating newer technologies right across the system – from large-scale offshore wind to domestic-scale solar panels to increased demand-side participation, using new smart digital systems to manage and control the system in real time.”

And he said: “Operating a zero-carbon electricity system in 2025, whenever there is sufficient renewable generation, is a major stepping stone to full decarbonisation of the entire electricity system.

“This will enable new technologies and removes barriers to ever increasing levels of renewables.”

Government figures show that renewables – wind, solar, bioenergy and hydropower – accounted for a record 27.5% of electricity supplies in 2018.

Low-carbon generation, which also includes nuclear power, accounted for half of supplies (49.6%), a new record high for clean electricity.

Coal, which the Government has pledged to bring off the system by 2025, fell to new lows in 2018, accounting for just 6% of UK power supplies, while gas made up 43.9% of the supply mix, down from 44.8% in 2017.

Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said: “Going a week without coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution is a huge leap forward in our world-leading efforts to reduce emissions, but we’re not stopping there.

“To combat climate change and seize on the opportunities of clean growth, we’re phasing out coal entirely by 2025 and building a cleaner, greener energy system.”

Government advisers the Committee on Climate Change have outlined how the UK could and should reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Mr Clark said the UK was now on a path to become the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions.

Industry body RenewableUK’s deputy chief executive, Emma Pinchbeck, said: “Wind has become a mainstream power source for the UK, providing up to 35% of our electricity over the weekend.

“Renewables overall are playing a leading role in our energy mix – and have been crucial to phasing out dirty coal.”

Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said: “Just a few years ago we were told Britain couldn’t possibly keep the lights on without burning coal. Now coal is quickly becoming an irrelevance, much to the benefit of our climate and air quality, and we barely notice it.

But he said quitting coal was the low hanging fruit and action was now needed on phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles, improving home energy efficiency, cutting meat consumption, and planting millions of trees to tackle the “climate emergency”.

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