Drax Power Station ends Britain's coal-free run

Coal power station emitting fumes

After 67 days, 22 hours and 55 minutes, Britain’s coal-free period ended on Tuesday 16 June when Drax Power Station generated power to the grid.

According to National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator), this two-month run marked the longest period that Britain has gone without using the fossil fuel since the world’s first coal-fired power plant, the Edison Electric Light Station, opened in London in 1882.

The previous record, set in June 2019, lasted for 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes. Britain surpassed this record earlier this year on 28 April 2020.

The most recent coal hiatus began during the coronavirus lockdown. Even though households began consuming more energy with residents spending much more time at home, electricity demand dropped significantly overall due to the decrease in industrial and commercial consumption.

With such a drop in demand, the National Grid was able to limit its sourcing from nonrenewable power plants (such as coal-fired stations), thus enabling renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, to take up nearly 36% of Britain’s total energy mix. Gas was the second-largest source of energy at 33%, followed by nuclear power at 21%.

Why did Drax Power Station start burning coal?

Britain’s longest coal-free run ended because Drax Power Station, located in North Yorkshire, needed to carry out a series of maintenance tests that required the station to generate power to the grid.

According to a press release from Drax Power Station, “Essential maintenance has been carried out on one of our coal generating units as is usual during the spring and summer months when demand is lower, and the coal units are not required to run.”

“Following the completion of this work, we need to make sure the unit is performing well, ready for the winter when demand for power increases and the coal units are expected to run. As a result, tests are being carried out now which require the unit to generate power,” said the statement.

Drax Power Station plans to stop commercial coal generation completely by March 2021, although two of its coal units will not officially close until September 2022. Four of the power station’s coal units have already been converted to burn biomass.

What’s next for British electricity?

green light bulb

The National Grid has since returned to running without coal, and it’s likely to remain coal-free for the remainder of the summer months while energy demand continues to be low. However, it’s probable that coal production will briefly pick back up as more businesses reopen and the temperature drops later in the year.

Since coal is the most carbon-intensive form of energy generation, Britain plans to shut down all remaining coal plants by 2024. After the recent closure of two plants in March 2020, just Drax Power Station and two other coal-fired power plants remain open.

Cleaner forms of energy will increasingly replace fossil fuel generation, and this current period of managing a higher share of renewable sources is likely to accelerate the UK’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

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