Britain will hit a fresh record for the longest period without coal power since the Industrial Revolution at midnight on Wednesday, raising the prospect that its 138-year addiction to the polluting fossil fuel can be kicked sooner than predicted.
None of Britain’s three remaining operational coal-fired power plants have been called upon to generate electricity for two months by National Grid, as the closure of businesses during the coronavirus lockdown has led to periods of record low power demand.
The pandemic has coincided with record sunshine and gusty periods ideal for generating electricity from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. Given these produce power cheaply once they are built, they meet demand first, pushing costlier plants such as coal, which are also subject to carbon taxes, further down the queue.
But the lockdown has merely amplified a trend of declining coal power in Britain over recent years. Prime minister Boris Johnson said earlier this year that his government would bring forward a deadline for ending coal power in Britain from 2025 to 2024, although environmentalists hope the end of the fossil fuel’s use in electricity generation could come even sooner.
Coal has been integral to Britain’s electricity system since 1882, when the country’s first steam-driven public power station was completed at Holborn Viaduct in London.
“The economics were not very compelling before for coal and it’s hard to see how that situation has improved in the current climate,” said Josh Burke, policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Drax, the FTSE 250 power company that owns Britain’s largest power station in Selby, North Yorkshire, has said it will close its remaining coal-fired units in September 2022 although it does not expect to use any coal after March next year. The remainder of the plant has already been converted to burning wood pellets.
French utility EDF, which owns the West Burton A coal plant in Nottinghamshire, said it has contracts to provide back-up power during periods of high demand, which will expire in September 2021.
“We will review the future of that station [West Burton A] beyond that date,” EDF said.
Sandbag, a climate change think-tank, expects the last coal plant standing in Britain to be German utility Uniper’s Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, also in Nottinghamshire. Ratcliffe has back-up power contracts in place until September 2024.
“We have yet to take a decision on a closure date for Ratcliffe, but this will be in line with government policy,” Uniper UK said.
There is also a coal plant in Northern Ireland, Kilroot, which is part of a different electricity system.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, the campaign group, said he expects coal power to be called upon to meet demand in the coming winter if demand for electricity returns to more normal levels as the economy picks up.
But he questioned whether contracts to provide power during peak periods would still be sufficient to justify the costs of keeping coal plants running.
“For commercial operators, will they want to keep paying the fixed costs for coal stations which aren’t running for six months and then only doing peaking?” he said.
However, Tom Edwards, an analyst at Cornwall Insight, a consultancy, pointed out there were “non-trivial” costs associated with closing power stations so there may be an “economic incentive” to keep plants going.
As recently as 1990, 70 per cent of the electricity system was still reliant on coal, according to government figures. By last year that had dwindled to 2.1 per cent, while renewables’ share of generation had climbed to 36.9 per cent.
Coal has been pushed out of the system through a combination of carbon taxes, emissions legislation, the rise of renewables but also Britain’s increased reliance since 1990 on gas, which is remains the single biggest source of electricity generation, at nearly 41 per cent last year.