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UK Closer Than Ever to Coal-Free Future

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“Coal is edging closer to extinction” in the UK, according to a new report.

The Electric Insights report published by Imperial College London on behalf of power group Drax revealed landmark changes in coal use for the second quarter of 2018.

Less than one per cent of Britain’s electricity supply was provided by coal in June, which is the lowest monthly figure ever recorded.

The report found that 12 days of June passed without any use of coal at all, in part due to the huge increases in solar power generation during the heatwave.

It also noted that over the three-month period between April and June this year, there were double the number of coal-free hours as there had been in both 2016 and 2017 combined.

During this period, the UK’s coal fleet ran at just 3% of its capacity.

Further, Drax explained that when coal generation was running over this time, its primary use was to provide “system stability” – balancing the services overnight - rather than providing “bulk energy”.

The shift in power production away from coal represents a “clear symbolic victory”, however the report acknowledged that the impact on climate during the summer months is “no longer significant”.

Coal made up 6% of carbon emissions from generating electricity over the quarter, generating fewer than 1 million tonnes of CO2.

During the same period, gas supplied 41% of demand, and generated 11 million tonnes of CO2, which accounts for 82% of emissions.

The report suggested that using coal for balancing, at the “right place and at the right price” would be a sensible option before more low-carbon forms of generation for system balancing go mainstream.

The report also pointed towards evidence that the rate of decarbonisation in the UK power sector is slowing down. Easier methods of removing coal are reaching their capacity, whilst growth in renewable energy sources is a slower process, and one that faces economic uncertainty.

Britain’s nuclear capacity is also under threat. Half of Britain’s nuclear plans are expected to retire by 2025 for safety reasons, and these old plants must be retired before new building can take place.

Whilst the second quarter 2018 carbon intensity amounted to 195g CO2/kWh, which represents good progress towards the 100g CO2 target set for 2030, the report noted that this figure is only 2% lower than grid carbon intensity in the same quarter last year.

The report concluded that the “era of slow progress may already be upon us”.

It warned that whilst “continued progress can be achieved, it “will require renewed focus to translate the switch from coal to gas into a switch from gas to low-carbon sources.

“The key question is whether government is willing to continue intervening in the electricity market to maintain its world-leading status on carbon reductions and to provide investors with the long-term security they need to finance construction, whilst maintaining public support towards clean energy.”

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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