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Britain coals it a day! – Great Britain goes two whole months without coal

23rd Jul 2020

2020 has been a challenging year to say the least. However, while the world has experienced events such as threats of war, bush fires and a global pandemic among many others, Great Britain quietly passed a significant milestone last month.

On 16th June 2020, Great Britain went more than two whole months without coal power with a total of 67-days, 22-hours and 55-minutes coal-free. I will discuss some of the events that have lead up to this achievement and some of the history behind the UK’s energy source consumption.

The use of coal as an energy source dates back millennia, however during the industrial revolution Britain paved the way for coal power. The energy from coal consumed in the UK skyrocketed between 1800 and the 1920s. At its peak in the 1910s coal was responsible for providing around 5500 Petajoules of energy in England and Wales annually.

This is the equivalent of boiling around 14 trillion kettles of water! The graph below shows the distribution of energy consumption by source in England and Wales from the 1800s to 2000.

As the world moved out of the industrial revolution, alternative energy sources were considered such as nuclear and natural gas. Since 2000, the UK has pushed for increased renewable energy. In November 2008 the Climate Change Act was passed into law, setting a target for an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and in 2009 the government set a 34% cut by 2020. I discussed this in detail in my June 2019 blog.

As a result, the UK has diversified its available energy sources and has increasingly relied on renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, wind, solar and bioenergy. Currently the UK is home to all of the top 3 largest offshore wind farms in the world: the Hornsea Wind Farm, the Walney offshore wind farm and the London Array wind farm.

Alongside the increased use of renewable energy sources, the UK has seen a decrease in its use of traditional fossil fuels. In November 2015, the UK government announced that all coal-fired power stations will be closed by 2025 and this year the government has further announced that the deadline will be brought forward to 2024.

The increased drive to reduce carbon emissions and the targets to close coal power stations has left only 4 active coal power stations remaining in 2020. Two of these include the Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire and the Kilroot power station in Northern Ireland, which are set to be converted to biomass or natural gas. This has led to great reductions in coal use; for example, last year the National Grid ESO announced that the UK achieved its longest ever coal-free run of 18 days and 6 hours. The entire country went without coal energy for the better part of a month.

This year however, the COVID-19 pandemic has grounded entire economies and caused governments worldwide to enforce lockdowns. It is hard to look for positives amidst this global tragedy, but perhaps the one silver lining is that it has been extremely beneficial for the global environment. Since international travel and industries have been stopped, greenhouse gas emissions have severely dropped. The energy demand for countries around the globe has also reduced.

A combination of targets to reduce carbon emissions and massively reduced energy demand due to COVID-19 has led us to this point. On 16th June 2020, the UK achieved a 67-day, 22-hour, 55-minute coal-free streak. The streak was ended when a coal unit at Drax power station was brought online for maintenance which required the generation of power. This is a tremendous achievement and is the longest period without coal since the start of the industrial revolution. As the world begins to emerge from lockdown, however, carbon emissions are rebounding fast. Fossil fuels are among the top polluting energy sources, and of those coal is the most polluting fossil fuel. Cutting out coal is a step in the right direction if we are to protect our environment and planet, and as governments around the world face the challenge of kick-starting economies, they would do well to look to the opportunities presented by the renewable energy industry in order to fill the gap.

In the UK the decline in coal popularity in industry can also be seen in patent filing statistics. The graph above shows the number of patent applications relating to coal. It shows large variations in annual patent filings due to several historic events. For example, the 1920s saw a dramatic increase in coal related applications as booming industries devised new uses of the power source. The expected dips in filings can be seen in the 1910s and 1940s as a result of World War One and Two. In the 1970s and 80s, to tackle high inflation rates, the government capped public sector pay leading to the 1970s miner’s strikes and the three-day week. By the early and mid-80s UK coal production was becoming more and more unprofitable. Most collieries were running at a loss and threatened with closure. The spike in patent applications in the 70s – 80s is likely a result of the coal industry looking for ways to automate the coal production and extraction process and to improve its efficiency. In the 2000s, as noted above, the UK set targets to reduce carbon emissions, and coal related applications filed during this period dwindled to levels lower than those a century before. However, in comparison, patent filings related to renewable energy sources have exploded in the last decade, also shown in the graph above.

This period without coal has demonstrated that the last decade’s innovation in renewable energies is working, and that the UK is paving the way for a greener future, so that sometime soon we can leave the coal that fuelled us during the industrial revolution in the ground where it came from.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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