Over a year ago we at Jordan’s wrote of the “watershed moment” when Britain went for over 24 hours without using coal generated electricity.
A year on and the record has been broken again, with Britain going for over three days without the use of coal generated electricity. This marks the first time that the UK has been powered for so long without the use of coal since the opening of the world’s first coal-fired power station in 1882.
This may surprise some, since coal has historically been at the forefront of UK energy production. However, in today’s climate it simply marks another stride towards more renewable energy production and a predictable consequence of the government’s campaign to phase out coal usage by 2025.
The first milestone came in April 2017, when Britain went its first full day without coal powered energy since 1882. This was surpassed a year later, when the UK went 55 hours without relying on coal production and a few days later when we managed 76 hours without the use of coal.
So, how did the UK continue to function without the use of coal for three days?
It has and will continue to be the case that the UK energy market shifts away from a heavy reliance on coal, to more renewable energy sources. This can be seen statistically, insofar as in April 2017 coal accounted for just 9% of electricity generation, down from 23% in 2015.
It seems reasonable to surmise that coal generated energy production is on a consistent and irrevocable downward spiral, which will lead to the end of coal generated energy production.
However, this is not exactly so, at least in the short-term. It is true that coal plants are becoming more difficult to make economically viable and so naturally more plants continue to shut down, which is a trend we have written about.
However, it is also correct to say that coal usage cannot and will not be phased out immediately. It is far more likely that the remaining plants will continue to battle for capacity contracts, to supply electricity during cold spells where increased demand and gas shortages will create a hike in gas prices. This was seen throughout the cold months of February and March, where demand for gas increased prices, which brought many coal power stations online. This is in stark contrast to April, where the UK went for two record breaking spells without the use of coal at all.
We have briefly detailed how coal usage is in a gradual decline, which is often seen as a last resort to plug gaps in the UK energy market. However, we have not yet explored what has filled the gaping void left by the departure of a fossil fuel which we once so heavily relied upon.
According to the National Grid when we most recently went for three days without the use of coal UK energy was generated by:-
- 31.5% gas,
- 20.1% nuclear,
- 25.1% wind,
- 7.6% solar,
- 5.2% biomass,
- 1.4% biomass,
- 1.4% hydro,
- 1.2% storage,v
- 7.5% from imports and
- 0.4% from other sources.
We’ve highlighted a number of trends and specifically the other sources of energy which were utilised during the most recent record. However, we have not yet addressed what is likely going to happen going forwards.
We have explored how the UK energy market has evolved in recent years and specifically the reasons why, i.e. economic viability and the government’s manifesto to move to more renewable sources of energy by 2025.
We have also offered a different viewpoint, one that suggested that it may not be easy to move completely away from coal production in the short-term. Any such attempt would likely result in an increase in the cost of gas energy production, which in turn would force suppliers to consider coal once more. It is incontrovertible that a gradual decline is inevitable, though the UK government should be wary that an immediate departure will place a heavy strain on a gas market which may not be ready for life without coal.
The government still have some time to ensure that we are well placed to cope during the more demanding and colder months. The transition from coal to more renewable and less environmentally harming sources of energy is expected to be completed by 2025. We have a definite end date, though no definite idea as to what will fill the void left by coal. We will explore some possible options below.
It is widely expected that other, less harmful sources of energy will be relied upon. It is likely that gas will assume the role in the short-term, with the long-term aim being that we be in a position to adopt purely renewable sources of energy. Whether this is too great an ask remains to be seen and there has been some criticism with the choice to move from coal to gas production. One such critique is Ms Dominique Doyle of Client Earth, who explained that it would be crazy to swap one fossil fuel for another, adding
“curtains for coal must not be a free pass to switch these to giant gas units”
Ms Doyle’s comments resonate, especially when it is questionable whether the gas market can support the UK market, without fluctuating prices which will ultimately hurt the consumer. Though the government have predicted a move away from coal by 2025 we have seen this winter that we often revert to coal production in the colder months and that coal generated electricity is a necessity both from a commercial and capacity viewpoint. Whether we are able to move away from this remains to be seen.
The inherent uncertainty with the gas market makes it undoubtedly more desirable to transition to purely renewable sources of energy as quickly as possible. Whether that is a possibility or not remains to be seen and there will be many who doubt that renewable energy sources will be able to meet the energy demands of the UK. There are however those who are hopeful and an interesting comment is provided by Hannah Martin, the head of energy and climate change at Greenpeace, who said
“A decade ago, a day without coal would have been unimaginable, and in 10 years’ time our energy system will have been radically transformed again”
Jordans Solicitors has a department working with ex coal miners looking into their Vibration White Finger claims as it has come to light that many miners missed out on £1000’s. If you’re an ex miner and think you may have a claim, contact a member of our VWF team free on 03303 001103 or request a call back.