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13 May 2019

827: Electricity without coal

Today’s entry reports on the UK generating power without coal for a week.

There were several headlines last week reporting that the UK generated electricity without using coal-fired power stations for a continuous week, between 1 May and 8 May.

The stories say this was the first time since 1882 but my superficial reading of Wikipedia leads me to believe it was actually since 1891, since the power station that started in 1882 (at Holborn Viaduct in central London) closed in 1886 and the next one didn’t start until 1891. Sorry, I just can’t help it. That one, at Deptford in south east London, remained in use until the 1960s. So that’s 128 years rather than 137, still highly significant. A coal-free day was achieved on 21 April 2017, but this was the first whole week.

I note in passing that the Overarching Energy National Policy Statement still says that all forms of electricity generation – ie including coal – are urgently needed.

Anyway, in fact it was just over eight days before the coal-fired power station at West Burton was switched back on again, and it’s off again now. As I write, using the site http://gridwatch.co.uk/ one can see that electricity is currently being generated as follows:

  • Gas 57.1%
  • Nuclear 17.4%
  • Biomass 6%
  • Solar 5.6%
  • Wind 2.2%
  • Hydroelectric 1.3%
  • Pumped storage 0.7%
  • Other 0.1%

Another 4.3% is coming via an interconnector from France, 2.8% from Belgium and 0.7% is going to Ireland. I obviously had to look up France and Belgium to check whether any of their power was coming from coal. France is very different from the UK:

  • Nuclear 75.9%
  • Hydroelectric 19.6%
  • Gas 8%
  • Solar 2.4%
  • Wind 1.5%
  • Biomass 1.3%
  • Coal 0.02%

That adds up to more than 100% because France is exporting energy to Italy, Spain and Germany (and the UK, as above). Belgium is somewhere in between, with 36.6% from nuclear and 35.4% from gas. So about 0.00086% of power in the UK is still coming from coal via France – that’s only 314kW.

But this article isn’t just a correction of news stories, the coal-free week is a moment to reflect on whether the UK can become carbon-free, or even renewable only, and how quickly. The director of National Grid ESO (electricity system operator, controlling how much electricity is added to the grid), said he thinks we could be carbon-free by 2025, ie no coal or gas-fired power stations (or all of their carbon being captured). Looking at the French figures, the achievement of 95% carbon-free is certainly possible, as they’re doing it now.

At the moment there are five live DCO application for gas-fired power stations. However three of them are for ‘peaking’ power, ie only to be used at times of high demand rather than continuously, one is the conversion of a coal-fired power station to gas and the fifth is only 52MW and is replacing an existing gas-fired station. Complementing these five, there are five for various forms of renewable energy and one nuclear power station (Wylfa Newydd). There therefore seems to be a natural move away from brand-new large-scale gas-fired power. The trend is thus in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether it will get nudged in any particular direction via changes in Government policy.

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