67 days coal free - a major milestone on the journey to a greener Britain
“In the 21st century, every piece of coal we don’t burn is a small victory for life on Earth.” (Greenpeace, May 2020)
On 16th June 2020, the UK came to the end of a 67-day, 22-hour, 55-minute coal-free streak, a remarkable period which saw us go for over two months without using any coal-fired power for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. The first time in 138 years!
A fantastic achievement considering just 10 years ago, 40% of the country’s electricity came from coal. Within that time, the National Grid energy system has undergone a dramatic transformation. Thanks to the investments into renewable energy, the UK no longer requires fossil fuels to be the backbone of the grid.
The period of coal-free power came to an end on Tuesday night when the Drax power station in north Yorkshire brought one of its coal units online adding power into the national grid.
The coal-free run may have got somewhat buried in COVID-19 headlines but the two are related. The lockdown started at the end of March and sparked an immediate drop (-20% year on year) in demand for power as schools, shops, factories, restaurants and businesses closed. You could almost hear the country grind to a halt, a quiet replacing the buzz we’re used to.
But not all energy sources went quiet over lockdown. During the recent coal-free run, renewable energy sources made up the biggest share of the mix, generating nearly 36 percent of power, with gas at 33 percent, and nuclear at 21 percent.
In fact, if we look back, coal’s appeal has been dwindling for a while; it contributed just 2.1 percent of the country’s power mix in 2019 and the number of coal-fired power stations has dropped to just four.
The graphs below show both the number of hours the UK went without coal generation and the amount of electricity produced from coal over the past few years. It's really encouraging to see the number of hours of coal-free generation going up and the amount of coal electricity going down each year and we hope this trend continues.
Let’s have a look at why that is and why we need to ditch the black stuff forever.
What's so wrong with coal?
For a start, it’s bad for the environment. Also, the amount we use now is not sustainable and the problem is only getting worse with the growing global population. Not just that, the mining industry has a negative impact physically and environmentally on its communities.
1. Coal supply is limited
Coal, like all other fossil fuels, is formed from the remains on ancient organisms. Found in layers of rock that have been compacted over millions of years means it’s a finite resource and non-renewable.
While in theory, more coal, oil and gas supplies may be created over time, fossil fuel production takes many millions of years so it won’t happen during our lifetime.
2. Coal generation is harmful to the climate
Coal is mostly made up mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons, which contain energy that only can be released through burning. To create electricity, you have to burn the coal in order to heat water and produce steam. The steam flows, under tremendous pressure, into a turbine that then spins an electricity generator.
The process of burning it releases harmful toxins, and emits large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.
In fact, of all the ways you can create electricity, coal is the most harmful to the climate. As Greenpeace reports, coal power creates 80 times more CO2 than the same amount of wind power, even when you factor in the energy used to build the turbines.
3. Coal mining is dangerous
Drilling for coal buried deep within the earth alters landscapes and damages ecosystems forever. Coal mining is also a dangerous job, and workers are constantly at risk of mine collapses and being trapped. In addition, the air quality in the mines is very low – miners are at risk of illnesses like black lung disease, where coal particles and pollutants fill the lungs and cause inflammation and respiratory illnesses.
4. Coal power stations are unprofitable
According to a recent study by carbontracker.org, nearly half (46 per cent) of coal power plants will be unprofitable in 2020 making the claim that: "building and operating coal is becoming a political decision that increasingly conflicts with underlying economic realities."
As renewable energy sources begin to outcompete coal, by 2030, around 52 per cent of coal plants are expected to be unprofitable.
Tony Bosworth from Friends of the Earth recently told The Independent “Digging up coal is making less and less business sense, but its awful impact on the planet will only decrease if it’s fully consigned to history.”
What are fossil fuels?
Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are biological materials containing hydrocarbon, which can be burned and used as a source of energy. They’re found in the Earth’s crust, so we have to drill into the earth to extract them.
As the name suggests, fossil fuels are old; oil deposits in the North Sea are around 150 million years old, while much of Britain’s coal began to form over 300 million years ago. Humans may have used fossil fuels as far back as the Iron Age but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we started to extract it on a large-scale basis to power our communities and industries.
Fossil fuel consumption is on the rise, but global reserves are getting scarcer and smaller. 16 of the 20 largest oil fields in the world have now reached peak level production – they’re simply too small to keep up with global demand.
Quite aside from sustainability, our reliance on fossil fuels is a huge contributor to climate change. In order to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5°C, we need to leave up to 80% of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground but globally, our reliance on fossil fuels is increasing.
Why are fossil fuels so harmful to the environment?
Here are some stark truths about fossil fuels and why we need to switch to renewable sources of energy as quickly as possible:
- Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels account for 90% of all emissions from human activity.
- Carbon dioxide dissolves into the sea, causing acidification which affects the life cycles of marine organisms.
- Our oceans absorb heat created from fossil fuel emissions, causing temperatures to rise and coral reefs to bleach and die.
- Vast amounts of land are decimated to provide space for drilling wells, pipelines, and processing facilities used in oil and gas drilling operations.
- Oil spills threaten marine life and flammable natural gas leaks have led to hundreds of human casualties in recent years.
The forecast for our fossil fuel reserves is sobering: 52 years for gas, 53 years for oil, and 150 years for coal. Although coal reserves are set to last longer than oil and gas, our reliance on it will accelerate as the other sources run dry.
Why should we abandon fossil fuels?
So, what’s to be done? While our record-making coal-free run this year is an achievement, the move to a fully green alternative needs to accelerate so we can fight climate change. We're now down to just four active coal power stations in the UK and with a significant shift to green energy, this number will decrease even further.
The main causes of climate change are carbon emissions generated by energy (produced from fossil fuels), transport, and the production of meat and dairy. To fight climate change and protect the future of our planet, we need to ditch fossil fuels, reduce carbon emissions and invest more in renewable sources of energy.
Unlike fossil fuels (‘brown energy’), green energy made from wind and solar power is sustainable, because it’s generated by resources that won’t run out. Also, the energy payback for green alternatives like solar power technology, for example, is just two years. That means it only takes two years for a solar park to make the same amount of energy used in its manufacture and installation. And after that, it can provide decades of clean energy that’s better for the planet.
Turn your back on coal and switch to green energy
The UK has already begun to turn its back on coal. So far this year, renewable energy sources have provided almost half of the UK’s electricity during the first three months, setting a new record. The report by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “This is the first time the fossil fuel share has dropped below 40 per cent of total generation, continuing the ongoing trend away from fossil fuels.”
We’re proud to be Britain’s greenest energy company, our electricity is 100% green –we take the money we make from our customers energy bills and use it to build new sources of green energy like windmills, sunmills and – soon – green gasmills. We’re the only green energy company with this unique model called bills-into-mills.
Ecotricity customers' bill money goes towards building new sources of green energy, and for every unit of energy you use with us, we make sure we put a unit of green energy into the grid – so just by being with us, you’ll be helping to change the way energy is made and used in Britain. No other energy companies can say that.