British power plants have broken a new record for the longest continuous coal-free streak since the distant era of the Industrial Revolution.
At time of writing, it’s been over six days (and counting) since the UK relied upon coal-burning for electricity generation: establishing a modern record of 159+ continuous hours without coal, eclipsing a previous-best 90-hour benchmark set last month.
“As more and more renewables come onto our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to increasingly seem like the new normal,” a spokesperson for the UK National Grid told Bloomberg.
“We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon.”
By not burning any coal since last Wednesday 1 May, power plants have helped the UK pass an early milestone of reaching over 1,000 coal-free hours this year, making it look likely that the nation will beat last year’s feat of going for 1,800 hours without burning the fossil fuel for electricity.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment, since it was only one year earlier than that, in 2017, when the UK succeeded for the first time in reaching 24 hours without burning coal.
Now, the UK is on track to make a whole week or even longer, and it’s all thanks to how the nation’s significantly shifted where its electricity comes from in recent times.
A decade ago, coal’s contribution to the UK grid was around 40 percent – the primary source of energy. These days, it’s dropped to well under 10 percent, a massive decrease, with an 88 percent reduction occurring between 2012 and 2018.
At the same time, other energy sources have stepped in to make up the shortfall. In 2018, 5 percent of the UK’s electricity came from coal, with 39.4 percent coming from gas, 19.5 percent from nuclear, and 33.3 percent from renewables (primarily wind).
While the numbers are definitely cause for celebration, it’s important to remember that coal isn’t the only harmful fossil fuel in the UK’s energy mix, with gas still outperforming electricity provided by renewable sources.
And we’re only talking about coal being used in electricity generation here; not carbon emission pollution produced from other sectors – like heating and transportation, among others.
“This means continued growth in wind, solar, hydro, biomass, energy efficiency, and energy storage [is necessary] to carry the country through the calm, grey days,” energy policy researchers Andrew Crossland and Jon Gluyas from Durham University wrote last month in The Conversation.
“Precisely how much growth is needed depends exactly on the future of energy demand, but to give some perspective of scale, more than 80 percent of the total UK energy supply, including electricity, land transport and heat, still comes from fossil fuels.
“The tens of billions of pounds already invested in low-carbon electricity is just the start of the UK’s journey to decarbonised energy.”
While we’re still at the beginning of this trek to a wholly decarbonised future, that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the small victories along the way, as long as we keep alert to the wider environmental context too – something groups like Extinction Rebellion have been so desperate to try to impress upon us.
Right now, there remain six operational coal-fired power stations at work in the UK.
By 2025, if all goes planned, hopefully there will be none, and today’s six-day streak will become replaced by an even more impressive tally: 365 and counting.