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Great Britain records two weeks of coal-free electricity generation

 Emissions from a coal fired power plant. Photograph: John Giles/PA

Published on The Guardian website on the 31st May 2019

Great Britain has hit a new power milestone – lasting for a fortnight without using any coal power to generate electricity for the first time since the industrial revolution.

The system which supplies electricity across England, Scotland and Wales went for two weeks without coal at 3:12pm BST precisely, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator.

The latest landmark comes less than a month after Britain’s first week without coal, underlining the dramatic decline in its use in recent years.

Coal has been used for electricity generation since 1882, when a plant opened in Holborn, London. However in 2018 the fuel made up just 5% of Britain’s electricity generation, a big decline from about 40% in 2012, according to figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Coal has mainly been replaced by natural gas, which produces less than half the carbon dioxide emissions. Renewable sources with no direct carbon emissions, such as solar and wind power, accounted for 28% of electricity generation in 2018, according to the power company Drax. The British record for solar power has also been beaten this month. On 14 May the country generated 25% of its power from the sun.

Modelling by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that coal use for energy generation globally will have to be reduced to close to zero in every scenario in which global temperature increases are limited to 1.5C.

Seven coal-fired power stations remain in use in the UK, mainly as backups during cold periods when energy demands are high. The Cottam plant in north Nottinghamshire will close in September, after owners EDF Energy said it was no longer economical to run it.

The government last year revealed plans to shut down all coal-fired power stations by 2025, but it has come under pressure to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels after parliament declared a climate emergency at the start of the month.

Business leaders and leading scientists this week urged the calls for the government to legislate for a target of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases from the UK economy by 2050, as recommended by the committee on climate change, the government’s independent climate advisors.

In a letter to the prime minister, business leaders urged the government to “act immediately to put in legislation” to meet the 2050 target. The letter was signed by senior executives of companies including BT, Iceland, Legal & General, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis.

The Labour party has already committed to the 2050 target, adding to the pressure on the government. Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s shadow energy secretary, said: “The roll-out of renewable energy is far too slow and the government are set to miss their existing emissions reductions targets.

“We join with businesses in urging the government to bring forward the UK’s emission reduction targets and implementing a pathway to get there.”

Government policy is that the UK is “on a path” to making the legal commitment to reduce net carbon emissions to zero. However, distracted by the imminent departure of Theresa May as prime minister – the government has so far not introduced statutory instruments to set the legally binding commitment.

Chris Skidmore, the energy and clean growth minister, said the government was “consigning coal to the history books”.

He said the government “aim[s] to become the first major economy to legislate for a net-zero emissions economy and bid to host pivotal climate talks in 2020”.

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