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UK Records Longest Coal-Free Period Since 1882

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The UK is currently experiencing its longest period without using coal-generated electricity since before the Industrial Revolution—469 hours as of 9 am this morning and still counting.

At 6 am on Tuesday and at 438 consecutive coal-free hours, the grid broke the record set last spring, when all coal power stations were offline for 18 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes.

National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) tweeted the news early Tuesday.

The new record was enabled by a combination of depressed demand during the coronavirus lockdown and high renewable generation.

Power demand has been down by a fifth due to the closure of factories, offices and schools, even though consumers have seen their home energy use rise.

Meanwhile, generation from solar power crested at a record 9.69GW last Monday, with photovoltaic panels taking advantage of skies cleared of air pollution and the cool, sunny April weather. The UK’s wind farms were so productive during a weekend in early April that they were yielding 40% of the UK's electricity and causing a power surplus that led to some consumers being paid to use energy.

Further coal-free records are likely to follow. The UK closed two of its remaining coal-fired power stations, Fiddler’s Ferry in Warrington, Cheshire, and Aberthaw in Wales, at the end of March. There are now just four coal-fired power stations left in the UK and the largest Drax has committed to stop burning coal in March 2021.

The government has committed to phasing out the use of coal power entirely by 2024. Last year, coal contributed just 3% of the UK's power, down from 70% in 1990.

Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said the latest record highlights the feasibility of running electricity grids reliant on variable renewables.

"Underneath the latest record lies a bigger story, that the operation of national energy systems with dwindling supplies from fossil fuels is rapidly becoming the norm. No longer are there questions around the ability of grid operators to keep the system going; instead, attention is turning to rapidly learning as much as possible from conditions where low-carbon power dominates,” he said.

However, lockdown restrictions and economic turmoil are likely to hamper the installation of new renewable infrastructure in the coming months and years, experts have warned. Analysts at GlobalData have adjusted their projections for new wind capacity in the UK this year down by 20% and Aurora Energy Systems have warned that depressed wholesale electricity prices could jeopardise the development of 34GB of renewable capacity across Europe.

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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