Will the UK ever say goodbye to coal?

Will the UK ever say goodbye to coal?

The Government has pledged to end coal-fired power generation in the UK by 2024. But, as recent events have shown, it might not be easy. 

The UK has been so effective at removing coal from its energy generation mix that earlier this year, the Prime Minister brought forward the target to completely phase it out from 2025 to 2024. However, when you look more closely at the figures, as well as recent events and deviations from this strategy, you find that it may not be a straightforward process.

In this article, we’re going to look at how the UK energy industry is saying goodbye to coal. We’ll look at why and how it is happening, as well as what could be done better.

Record breakers

For 55 days across June, July and August 2020, the UK did not generate any power from its coal-fired power plants. This comfortably beat the previous record of 18 days, and marked the biggest unbroken run of coal-free power generation since the Industrial Revolution.

However, on August 11th, the run came to an end. Because of the exceedingly high temperatures the country was facing at the time, the UK’s gas-fired power stations were struggling to function. As a result, the National Grid took the decision to switch back on the coal-fired station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire. We went back to relying on coal again.

The end of the coal age

Power generated by coal has had a good run in the UK, but it is now coming to an end. Only four years ago, 25% of the UK’s electricity came from coal-generated power sources. In 2019, that figure was 2.1%, and it is falling all the time. In recent years, several coal-fired power stations have been closed down or converted to gas power. Today, there are only four left – Ratcliffe-on Soar and West Burton in Nottinghamshire, Drax in North Yorkshire and Kilroot in Northern Ireland.

Back in 2015, as part of its green agenda, the Government announced that it would be completely phasing out coal from its energy generation mix by 2025. However, because of the speed at which the conversion was moving, Boris Johnson felt confident enough to bring that date forward a year to 2024.

As well as cleaner, gas-fired power stations, the UK has moved quickly to reduce its reliance on coal and replace it with energy from renewable sources. These sources include solar, wind and biomass. In the first quarter of 2020, wind farms produced 30% of the UK’s electricity. The proportion of power generated by solar has jumped this year too, due to the sunny summer the country has enjoyed.

Drawbacks to renewable power

However, as the events during the heatwave have shown, the country is not ready to ultimately end its reliance on coal yet.

In high temperatures, plants powered by gas find it difficult to generate electricity at standard levels. This is because they rely on a regular flow of air through the compressor. Because it takes more power to compress heavy, humid air, compared to cooler air, these power plants lose efficiency on hotter days.

At the same time, hot, humid days cause wind turbines to slow down and generate less power. From the standard 30% of the UK’s power that wind farms produce, this number fell to 4% during the August heatwave.

It shows that the UK needs to do more before it can totally switch off coal-generated power. You cannot rely on gas and renewables if the power stations stop working when the temperature goes up. More renewable-fuelled power stations need to be built, with coal-fired power stations converted faster.

Additionally, the National Grid and the energy companies need to have a better strategy for their maintenance scheduling. It is customary to schedule planned maintenance for the summer, as consumption goes down while people are on holiday, or the weather is hot, so consumers don’t need heating. However, maintenance on gas power plants during August put many stations out of action, when they were needed the most.

A spanner in the works

Another example of a lack of joined-up thinking and overarching strategy on the part of the Government came in November 2019, when it gave approval to construct a new coal mine in Cumbria. The mine, called Woodhouse Colliery, is pencilled in to start production in 2022 (although, this may be delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic), and will produce 2-3 million tonnes of coal for the next 50 years.

While this new mine is intended to produce coal for steel making rather than power generation, it sends out mixed messages. It is difficult for the UK to position itself at the forefront of carbon reduction, with the most ambitious target to achieve net zero in the world, when it is about to open a brand new coal mine. While these projects are big job creators and make a difference to the local economy, concerns about their effect on climate change are well-founded.

The end is near

The introduction of renewables into the energy production process has made a significant difference to the UK power sector’s carbon emissions. In the last eight years, the average carbon intensity of the National Grid has decreased from 507g of CO2 to 161g. However, we need to go further.

Currently, the grid goes back to coal when there is a prolonged period of hot weather, while the authorities are still approving the construction of new coal mines. Another initiative to reduce carbon emissions, the smart meter rollout, has been beset with budgetary and technical problems. It is unclear whether smart meters really encourage consumers to save energy anyway.

The Government sets these ambitious targets, ending the reliance on coal by 2024 and achieving net-zero by 2050, but questions remain as to whether they have the right strategy to meet them. The energy sector has made great strides, but is it ready for the last part of the journey?