What does Coal Zero mean for the future of our energy?


To most of us it probably seemed like a normal Tuesday – but on 10 May 2016, something historic happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. For what is thought to be the first time since 1882, the UK produced none of its electricity from coal.


According to National Grid, the fall to Coal Zero happened purely by coincidence. Yet it happened again a few days later, and again, and again, clocking up 25 completely coal-free hours in May – an all-time low that hasn’t been seen in the UK since the world’s first public coal-fired power station opened here over 130 years ago. 



This is good news for the UK government’s pledge to completely phase out coal by 2025, thanks to an increase in renewable energy sources like solar, water and wind.


So as the smoke clears, I asked two carbon experts – Dr Simon Evans from Carbon Brief and Dave Jones from Sandbag – to explain how the demise of coal is leading us towards a cleaner future.



So Simon, my first question’s for you – what’s led to the demand for coal-fired power in the UK dropping to its lowest point since 1882?

Simon: “Well, UK demand for electricity overall has actually been falling for about 10 years. It’s been a combination of appliances like LED light bulbs, fridges, TVs and so on becoming more efficient, and really significant increases in the amount of electricity coming from renewable sources. So there’s a smaller share of the pie, if you like, for the other fuels to cover.”



I do like pie. So what other sources make up the filling?

Simon: “Gas, nuclear and coal. It’s become cheaper to buy gas than coal, and the UK government also has something called the Carbon Price Support, which is like a top-up tax on carbon emissions. Last April this doubled to £18 per tonne of CO2, so the economic case has shifted massively in favour of gas. And with the rise in renewables and the fall in electricity demand, what we’re seeing is really dramatic reductions in the amount of coal being burned in the UK.”


So hitting Coal Zero permanently might happen pretty soon?

Dave: “Yes – it’s absolutely amazing. In 2012, 40% of our electricity came from coal, last year it was down at 23%, and this year it’ll be significantly lower still. Every day, the electricity we use is getting cleaner and cleaner.”

Simon: “Our emissions of greenhouse gases in 2015 were the lowest they’ve been since the 1920s, which is pretty remarkable.” 



How is the UK doing in comparison to other countries when it comes to phasing out coal?

Dave: “We’re leading the way, for three reasons. One: we’re building a huge network of renewables. Two: we have a high carbon tax in place, which is putting the true cost of carbon onto power stations. Three: we have the government’s promise to completely phase out coal. By 2030, coal emissions globally must more than halve, so there needs to be a huge step forward – and the UK has been a major force for change.”


Simon: “Last year was the largest year-on-year fall in global coal use for 50 years at least. Within that, one of the largest reductions in any country was in China, which surprises a lot of people. There’s been an accelerating decline in its coal use for two years in a row now, which is hugely significant given that China burns half the world’s coal.”


Why do you believe it’s so important for us to stop using coal altogether?

Dave: “There are two main problems: the climate change impact – where we’re seeing more extreme weather more often – and the health impact. We reported this year that at a European level, 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from coal power stations and 23,000 premature deaths a year result from their pollution.”


How about energy reliability though – might phasing out coal mean more chance of power cuts?

Simon: “The government has said that its pledge to phase out coal by 2025 is conditional on making sure that there’s always enough supply to keep the lights on. And in a way, putting a firm timetable on the coal phase-out can create more certainty, because you know in advance that you’re going to need something to replace coal power stations. It gives power companies the time to plan ahead.”


Here’s the biggie: what impact could the UK leaving the EU have on our carbon output?

Simon: “The short answer is that we don’t know. But the slightly longer answer is that it probably won’t change much – because although there are pieces of European legislation that will have an impact on UK climate policy, the UK has its own Climate Change Act that is legally binding. I don’t really see Brexit resulting in a shift away from our coal phase-out.”



So while we wait for 2025, what are the most effective things that we can do to help reduce our carbon emissions?

Dave: “The price of solar panels is coming down all the time, and of course there are the standard tips like replacing lightbulbs and using thermostats – all the efforts people are making with energy efficiency are having a really measurable effect on carbon emissions. Also, just general awareness. When we’re talking about replacing coal with renewables, it does need the public to be on board and to really understand what a great thing this is.”


Well, there’s nothing like good news to clear the air.


*Published October 2016, all facts and figures correct at the time of publishing

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