It was a historic moment — the first time the UK’s electricity was supplied without burning any coal.
The milestone was passed last week — on seven separate occasions, in fact — when Britain was powered without recourse to coal for the first time since the country’s first steam-driven public power station opened in 1882. From Monday May 9 to the following Sunday lunchtime, the UK was at “zero coal” almost one-third of the time.
Falling power prices have made it increasingly uneconomical to run coal-fired power stations, especially when high winds or sunshine boost renewable generators.
Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, announced in a speech last year that she wanted an end to coal power in the UK by 2025, as part of the country’s commitment to cutting carbon emissions. That date may have to come forward.
Simon Evans, policy editor of the Carbon Brief website, said: “This is not the end for UK coal power, but it is a significant moment. The UK was the first country to build a public coal-fired power station. Now it is going to be one of the first to close them all down.”
Centralised energy supply in the UK was built on coal. Thomas Edison’s coal-fuelled power plant, completed in 1882 at Holborn Viaduct, was the first public power station of any size. Its 27-tonne generator was enough to light 1,000 lamps and was soon expanded to power 3,000.
For the next century, coal remained the dominant source of fuel. When British electricity was privatised in 1990, coal power still made up about 80 per cent of supplies — not least because gas was kept back as a material from which to make petrochemicals.
In the past 25 years, however, cheap and abundant gas has supplanted coal as the most significant form of thermal generation, while renewables have provided additional electricity.
Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford university, said: “Since 1990 three things have happened: nuclear has made no progress, gas has become a big fuel source and renewables have come along.”
More recently, the decline of British coal power has accelerated for two reasons.
The first is that the tumbling oil price has brought down wholesale energy prices with it, leading some companies to shut down plants they no longer deemed worth maintaining.
Analysis by Aurora Energy Research suggests coal power stations need a wholesale power price of about £40 per megawatt hour to make them worth running. Last week, the average price was just £29 per MWh.
In March, two of Britain’s biggest coal power stations — Longannet in Scotland and Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire — closed altogether.
The second reason is that Ms Rudd told the industry last year that she would ensure Britain’s last coal-fired boiler would shut by 2025. Having been informed there is no long-term future for coal, those in charge of generation appear to have cut back on maintenance work, leading to occasional breakdowns.
Last week National Grid, which runs the UK’s electricity network, had to issue an emergency request for more power after several coal-fired power stations encountered problems.
Dave Jones, an analyst at Sandbag, the climate change think-tank, said: “Having zero coal in the UK is a historic moment in the transition to clean electricity. The fall has come quickly — as recently as 2012, 40 per cent of electricity came from coal.”
Although ministers want an end to coal power, this accelerated timetable has prompted concerns about the security of supplies.
Prof Helm said: “It is not unusual outside Britain to see coal playing no role in electricity supply — it happens in Germany regularly. But it does tell us that coal is going to collapse in this country faster than thought.”
The margin of potential supply above peak demand has fallen to its lowest level in decades, hitting just 1.2 per cent during this winter before last-resort measures were brought in.
The emergency request issued by the grid last week was the second the National Grid has made in the past year. Before that, it had only issued one since 2009.
In April, the Grid gave two lucrative services contracts to coal-fuelled plants. These helped ease the economic squeeze but critics said they also revealed the Grid’s “blind panic” over electricity supplies in the short term.
In the longer term, with concerns mounting about whether a new nuclear plant will be built at Hinkley Point by 2025 as planned, some are suggesting the Grid might need to do more to encourage coal operators to stay online.
Peter Atherton, an analyst at Jefferies, said: “The UK government wants to phase coal generation out by 2025. But looking at the situation today, the bigger challenge will be keeping coal plants on the system to protect security of supply.”
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on UK energy when a new story is published