Great Britain has now gone more than 18 days without coal-fired generation, thanks to sunny weather and low demand.
National Grid ESO announced the news this morning (28 April), as the previous record of 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes set last May, was broken at 6:10am. There has now been over 438 hours since the fossil fuel generated any power in the country’s electricity network.
This has been driven by sunny weather leading to record solar generation and lower than usual electricity demand due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Fintan Slye, director of ESO, said 2020 was shaping up to be a record breaking year all round.
“A zero carbon grid is a stretching target, but it’s crucially important – and milestones like our latest coal-free run show that Great Britain is leading the world in transitioning to net zero.”
Drax unit 5 was the last coal station to run and was switched off at 11:35pm on April 9, 2020 according to EnAppSys. The company’s director Phil Hewett said the speed of the country's transformation in moving away from coal made it a “green energy pioneer.”
“It is difficult to see why any coal stations should run again at the moment as the low demand due to the coronavirus crisis continues along with the low prices of summer. This year should be the first year with a coal-free month since coal was first used to create electricity continuously in London by Thomas Edison at 57 Holborn Viaduct in 1882.”
The ‘critical role’ of solar in moving away from coal
Record solar generation has helped to meet demand in recent weeks, with a new high of 9.68GW at around 12:30 on Monday 20 April 2020. A weekly generation record has also been set, with solar generating 485.41GWh within the week starting 20 April.
This was aided by what has provisionally been the sunniest April on record. The MET Office announced that 212.5 hours of sunshine have been recorded so far, beating the previous record of 211.9 hours in 2015. The record will not be official till April has finished, however.
Solar Trade Association chief executive Chris Hewett said solar was playing a “critical role” in delivering fossil-free, cleaner, cheaper power to Britain.
“As we look towards a net zero future, solar will become an increasingly greater part of the energy mix, tackling high power prices, climate change, and biodiversity loss.”
During the period without coal on the grid, the UK has seen more than 1TWh of solar power, according to the STA.
This mirrors previous periods without coal on the system, which have largely been during summer months when high irradiation has ensured more solar power can be used to meet the country’s electricity needs.
Dampened demand from COVID-19 drives down coal
The second key factor for the coal-free record has been lower demand, driven by the current COVID-19 lockdown. As factories and industry has closed its doors to protect workers and slow the pandemic, electricity demand throughout the UK has fallen dramatically.
For example, on Easter Sunday demand hit a lot of just 15.2GW, 3.1GW below the Easter minimum last year. This trend has been seen throughout the lockdown period, dropping 13% within just two days of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing the lockdown on 23 March.
This helped drive lower coal use even early on, with Wärtsilä announcing that between 10 March and 10 April coal use was down by 35% in the UK due to COVID-19.
This low demand combined with favourable weather has helped the country hit a “remarkable milestone” in the decline of coal power, according to Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
“But underneath the latest record lies a bigger story, that the operation of national energy systems with dwindling supplies from fossil fuels is rapidly becoming the norm. No longer are there questions around the ability of grid operators to keep the system going; instead, attention is turning to rapidly learning as much as possible from conditions where low-carbon power dominates.”
‘Valuable insights’ into the grid of the future
While the low demand caused by COVID-19 will not last, analysts have suggested that it will help to accelerate the energy transition.
Marshall continued that this offers an insight into how a predominantly renewable energy dominated grid will be managed in the future.
“It is now just a couple of years until the end of coal in the UK, with gas set to play a mere bit-part in power generation by the end of the decade. It is moments like these that can provide valuable insights into keeping the lights on as we move towards a net zero economy.”
National Grid ESO has already undergone a huge amount of change to help enable a renewable energy powered network in the UK, ahead of the countries target of going net zero by 2050.
Slye added: “We’ve been planning, investing in the system and working with industry for years to make sure we’re ready to run a coal-free system with an increasing share of renewables, introducing new technologies and more intelligent ways of using energy to make sure the system is flexible and resilient to the challenges that decarbonisation brings.”
The amount of coal on the UK grid has been steadily declining for years; most recently SSE closed its last coal-fired power station, Fiddler’s Ferry on 31 March. This followed RWE closing its 1.56GW Aberthaw B coal-fired power station in March as well.
EnAppSys’s Hewett added: “The rapid reduction in use of coal in Britain has been due to the introduction of the carbon price support which has made coal uneconomical except when prices are high (typically in the winter) or when National Grid ESO has a need for a certain power station at a certain point in the network.
“This reduction of coal alongside the build-out of renewables has resulted in a reduction of CO2 intensity of electricity production from around 450g/kWh in 2010 to around a third of that at 150g/kWh."
The unabated use of coal is set to finish entirely by 2025 in the UK, in an effort to continue decarbonisation. This transition allowed the UK to derive more power from renewable energy than fossil fuels for the first time since the industrial revolution in 2019.