UK Milestone: One Week Without Coal-Fired Generation

The UK has gone a week without using electricity from coal-fired generation, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator (NGESO), which oversees the power network in England, Wales, and Scotland. Government officials said it’s the first time the UK has gone without coal in a week-long period since 1882, when a coal-fired plant opened in London.

The UK has committed to phasing out all coal-fired generation by 2025. NGESO Director Fintan Slye on May 8 said a nation without power from coal would be the “new normal,” noting the UK continues to get more of its electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

The NGESO said the last coal-fired unit went off its system in the early afternoon on May 1. Most coal units in the UK are now used to provide backup power during periods of high demand. Reduced use of coal has cut carbon emissions from power generation by half since 2013, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent group that advises the UK on climate change matters. The CCC in a report last week said the UK should target net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Slye in a statement Wednesday said: “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.”

Chris Stark, CCC’s chief executive, in a meeting Wednesday with UK lawmakers said some government policies could make the 2025 goal difficult to achieve. Stark said efforts to impose a higher value-added tax (VAT) on solar panels, and wavering support for onshore wind projects, could slow progress toward net-zero emissions.

“We will need to throw everything at this challenge, including onshore wind and solar,” Stark told members of the House of Commons who serve on the business committee. “Anything that makes it harder is really not in line with the net-zero challenge overall.”

There are seven operating coal-fired power generation stations remaining in the UK, according to Power Stations of the UK. That includes the Drax Power Station, the nation’s largest, which has two coal units and four biomass units, with the last of those biomass units coming online in 2018. The Drax station’s generation capacity of 3,960 MW makes it the second-largest plant in Western Europe, behind only the 4,400-MW Neurath Power Station in Germany. Plant operator Drax Group is converting the remaining coal units at Drax to run on natural gas, and has proposed a 3.6-GW gas-fired station at the site in Selby, North Yorkshire.

Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax Power Station, in a statement last week after the CCC report said, “We stand ready to implement the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations and scale up the successful BECCS pilot at Drax to create the world’s first negative emissions power station in the mid-2020s. Bioenergy with carbon capture is the cornerstone around which a low carbon economy can be built: Crucial for tackling climate change, it will also create new jobs and export opportunities for British businesses.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).