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Will the coronavirus crisis end UK coal?

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UK coal-fired power plants were already in the process of being phased out. Let’s have a look at how the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the demise of UK coal, as well as what’s in store for the future of power generation.

For up-to-date information regarding the development of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, consult official sources like the World Health Organization and the UK government.

On Wednesday, Great Britain reached two months (61 days) without having burned any coal to generate electricity, according to National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator). The electricity network has been running without coal since midnight on 9 April, fifteen days after the UK government imposed the lockdown.

This is the longest Britain has gone without using coal to generate power since the world’s first coal-fired power plant, the Edison Electric Light Station, opened in London in 1882.

The previous record was set in June 2019, when no coal was burned to generate electricity for 18 days, six hours and 10 seconds. Britain surpassed this milestone on 28 April 2020.

The end of UK coal

Once a primary source of electricity generation for decades, coal is increasingly becoming less of a player in the UK’s energy mix.

The current UK coal hiatus is due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. Even though households are consuming more electricity with residents spending more time at home, overall energy demand has dropped due to the decrease in industrial and commercial activities.

With a drop in demand, the National Grid can limit its sourcing from nonrenewable power plants (such as coal-fired stations), and thus enable renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, to take up a larger share of the UK’s total energy mix.

According to the BBC, the National Grid says it does not expect coal generators to start running anytime soon.

It’s possible that UK coal production may briefly pick back up as more businesses reopen and the temperature drops later in the year. However, since coal is the most carbon-intensive form of energy generation, the nation plans to shut down all remaining UK coal plants by 2024.

Two UK coal-fired power stations were permanently shut down in March. The Kilroot Power station in Northern Ireland recently announced in May its plan to convert to a gas-powered station, therefore leaving three active coal plants to be phased out over the next four years.

Government restrictions for purchasing coal to burn at home are even set to begin taking effect next February.

In 1920, the UK coal mining industry employed more than one million people across the country, according to data published by Statista. The industry now employs just around one thousand individuals.

The UK is not the only country taking measures to end the use of coal for generating energy. Belgium closed all of its coal factories in 2016, while more recently Sweden and Austria shut down their remaining coal-fired power plants in early April of this year. Most other European countries also have plans in place to phase out coal plants over the next 10 to 20 years.

What’s next for the UK?

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Instead of relying on coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity, the UK will increasingly turn to renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydroelectric power.

Kathrin Guttmann, Europe Beyond Coal Campaign Director, advises the UK to focus on COVID-19 recovery measures that “accelerate the coal exit and pivot to renewables to secure green healthy jobs that actually have a secure future, while channelling support to coal mining communities for the transition.”

“While nobody would celebrate the reasons for the additional decline in energy demand and pollution that we are seeing currently, it does present us with an unprecedented opportunity to build a more resilient economy with a renewables-based power sector at its heart.”

Kathrin GutmannEurope Beyond Coal Campain Director

In some areas, plans are being made to repurpose UK coal mines as renewable energy stations. By flooding the underground mines, geothermal energy can be harnessed to generate heat. The Tyneside City Council, located in the North East area of England, has already raised nearly £7 million to go towards generating this type of energy to heat local council buildings.

In addition to the country surpassing its previous record for the most consecutive days without burning coal for power, the UK also set a new solar power record on 20 April when solar power stations generated more than 9.6GW of electricity.

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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