When I published this post, the last time a coal power plant generated electricity was 13:24 Wednesday 1st May. National Grid ESO has confirmed that not only had no coal been used on the electricity grid since then, but none had been scheduled either. This was almost guaranteed to make a full week without coal.

This means that the UK has beaten its previous record of 55 hours and for the first time in 137 years (since 1882) the UK did not use coal power for a week. It goes a long way to demonstrating that countries can take the most polluting sources of electricity off the grid without fear of blackouts or a decrease in reliability, and bolsters the government’s commitment to phase out coal power by 2025.

However, this also comes just days after the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (the independent advisory body on climate issues) published a report recommending Britain aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – which would mean further ambitions for decarbonising power but also lifestyle changes such as eating less meat.

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Carbon Intensity over the period (gCO2/kwh)

How did this happen?

Strong wind output, gas power, and further imports from Belgium through the recent NEMO link, displaced coal power from the generation mix. This was on the foundation of a higher price for electricity based on its carbon impact – the carbon price floor. Interestingly, this was over a period of higher overall demand than the previous record.

As the British wholesale electricity market is based on self-dispatch, only the cheapest sources of generation are run to meet demand – once demand is met, any source of generation left which is more expensive is pushed off what’s called the ‘merit order’. An example of this is shown in the chart below, with Europe as the reference. Whilst renewables and nuclear do tend to have an overall higher cost, they have a low variable cost of generating (as once they are on the system they don’t really have to pay fuel costs, unlike gas and coal). Whilst coal in this chart below is shown as having a lower marginal cost than gas, the UK market’s carbon price switches the place of coal and gas. 

From providing a huge proportion of the UK’s power and being the driving force behind the UK’s industrial revolution and move to gas heating, coal’s days are now numbered. It’s telling that even Fiddler’s Ferry, the power station that broke the week-long hiatus of coal, is facing serious questions about its continued economic viability.

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