Britain has been coal-free for a fortnight: but is that really as good as it sounds?

Britain has been coal-free for a fortnight: but is that really as good as it sounds?

Breaking records

As of posting this blog on 3rd June 2019, Britain is currently entering its 17th day of generating electricity without the use of coal. This has been the longest period of time the country has gone without coal since the very first coal power station was built in 1882

April was first to break 2018’s records, reaching up to 76 hours and ten minutes over the Easter weekend. May alone saw two occassions of record-breaking coal-free periods. The first was an enire week before a coal power plant was needed back on the grid, and the second of course the on-going fortnight, 17 days and counting. These occurrances have demonstrated Fintan Slye, director of the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO)’s assertion that this would become the “new normal”. Britain set two new records within one month, showing how quickly it is becoming feasible to generate our country’s electricity without coal. 

Slye said “as more and more renewables come onto the system, we’re seeing things progress at an astonishing rate.” And this is reflected in the rapid increase in length and frequency of coal-free periods.

This is best exemplified in the figure below, which shows the record for the longest time without coal over the last three years. 

Image source

This graph shows the drammatic increase of coal-free hours made over just three years. Images like these are heartening, showing that progress is being made quickly and significantly.  

The break-down

By taking a closer look at the figures for the first week in May to run without coal, we begin to see a different side of the story. We can see that only 23% of electricity was produced by renewable sources. 12% came from wind, 6% from biomass, 5% from solar and 1% from large hydro.

This is good news for wind particularly, which is becoming ever more pivotal in the UK energy mix, and is also promising for solar, (which also broke records last month). However, the fact that 44.6% came from gas, 20.8% came from nuclear and 6% came from biomass is worrying for many.

Perhaps the most concerning distinction to make is that coal-free does not mean fossil fuel-free. The huge reliance on natural gas to achieve this figure (45%) is very substantial for a resource which is widely considered incompatible with the IPCCC report. The report calls for energy systems to be fully decarbonised within the coming decades. Friends of the Earth Europe published a report in response stating that ‘For the EU, fossil fuels, including natural gas, can have no substantial role in an EU 2 degree energy system beyond 2035. Although gas emits roughly half the amount of carbon as coal, it does remain to be a fossil fuel. Our current heavy reliance on this resource may hinder our ability to meet the necessary guidelines laid out in the IPCCC report. Greater reliance on gas does not necessarily lead to a more sustainable Britain.

The 20.8% provided by nuclear power plants would also cause alarm for some, who worry about the hazardous materials produced by nuclear power plants. Nuclear is also not classified as a renwable energy and (as YouGen has debated previously) is not necessarily even considered a ‘green’ energy.

Furthermore, the Committee on Climate Change report states that biomass should not be relied on for wide-scale electricity generation, as the negative consequences of wood harvesting and transporting stop it from being truly renewable.

Muna Suleiman, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “hours of coal-free electricity is great but let’s make this all day every day. “The government must prioritise the development of sources such as solar and onshore wind.

And finally, the figures from ESO also show that 10% of the electricity produced in this time came from ‘Imports’. This unspecific reference gives little idea of the source of these imports. The electricity imported from other countries may well come with their own energy mix, comprising of renewable, gas and coal. This would of course eschew the grid’s figures if analysed by taking the true of source of this energy into consideration.

Although this shows significant progress towards a coal-free future, to attain it we are trading one fossil fuel for another. More investment in renewable energy is needed so that we can stop relying on nuclear and natural gas to ‘bridge the gap’.

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.