• How Did the UK Manage a Full Day Without Coal?

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How Did the UK Manage a Full Day Without Coal?

May 07 2017

On April 21st 2017, the UK managed to go an entire 24 hours without the use of coal to meet its energy needs for the first time since 1882. In its heyday, the coal industry employed over one million Britons in more than 3,000 mines across the nation. Now, it appears to be on its last legs as renewables, natural gas and nuclear power look set to take over the mantle.

A fallen giant

The use of coal as a widespread energy source was key in powering the British Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. In 1882, Thomas Edison helped to build the first coal-fired power plant in the UK capital, and for the first half of the 20th century coal went from strength to strength.

However, the rise of the passenger car and the use of petrol and diesel supplanted coal’s position in the transportation industry, while concerns about harmful emissions released from coal-fired plants led to industry pursuing cleaner methods of energy generation.

In 2013, Didcot A was closed down permanently – at its peak, the station had burned more than four million tonnes of coal annually and had powered a significant proportion of London homes and businesses. Meanwhile, the northern coal-fired giant Drax power station has now been repurposed as a plant dealing largely in compressed wood pellets. The stalwarts of the coal industry are dying off, one by one.

The new wave

Increasing concerns about the air pollution and environmental damage which coal necessarily brings have led to a rise in popularity for renewable methods of energy generation. This, coupled with falling cost prices, means that the UK is currently the number one producer of wind power in Europe. What’s more, Britain is also looking to expand its offshore potential, with 10,700 megawatts’ worth of new projects planned for the coming years; that’s the equivalent of 10 standard nuclear power plants.

However, the recent rolling back of subsidies by the incumbent Tory government may put the brakes on the expansion of renewable energy across the nation. In fact, it seems that natural gas is the biggest energy source filling the void left by coal. Falling gas prices have meant that natural gas accounted for more than 40% of the UK energy market last year, and with several fracking projects in the pipeline, that percentage is likely to rise even more.

Still a role for coal to play?

Despite ostensibly being on its last legs in the UK, the National Grid have been quick to stress that coal still has a future in Britain.

“To have the first working day without coal since the start of the industrial revolution will be a watershed moment in how our energy system is changing,” explained Cordi O'Hara, director of the organisation. “However, It’s important to remember coal is still an important source of energy as we transition to a low carbon system.”

Outside of the boundaries of Europe, coal still enjoys a more esteemed opinion in other nations. In the face of no small amount of criticism, the Australian government has come out in support of coal repeatedly over the last few years, while it also comprises a significant proportion of the energy sector in the United States.

Closer to home, however, the writing is surely on the wall for coal – and as the first day in more than 130 years without its influence, April 21st could well go down as the beginning of the end for this fallen giant of the energy industry.

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