UK coal
Image credit: Stock

Great Britain has broken the record for the longest period of electricity generation without coal, beating the record of 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes set in June 2019, whilst grid-fed solar generation hit record levels, according to the UK Solar Association and energy analytics firm EnAppsys.

With record-low levels of electricity demand, a reduction in the size of the available coal-powered generation fleet, record levels of solar energy usage, and low demand due to the coronavirus pricing coal out of the market.

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Coal power has been offline since 23:35 on Thursday 09 April 2020, with more than 1 terawatt hour of solar power put onto the UK’s grid since then – enough to boil water for over 25 billion cups of tea or drive 6.7 billion kilometres in a Nissan Leaf.

STA Chief Executive Chris Hewett said “Solar is playing a critical role in delivering a fossil-free grid and 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.”

“With the Government beginning to consider how best to kick-start the economy following the Covid-19 crisis, it has a golden opportunity to place renewables at the heart of its recovery package. Solar in particular can provide a glut of quality green jobs and growth at short notice, with your average solar park able to be built in less than six months, and home installation in less than a day. The industry is ready to help drive the revival.”

EnAppSys noted that any comparison of coal usage in Britain against other countries should include a consideration of two sources of coal: “hard coal”, which is what people in GB would consider to be coal, and “lignite”. Hard coal use has declined from a peak of around 69GW in early 2015 to around 17GW now at the height of the corona crisis. In contrast, lignite use has remained historically high but has only recently started to drop, due to closures in 2019 and now the coronavirus effect, to a historic low of around 16GW from previous peaks of 42GW.

GB Fuel mix from 2010 with marginal CO2 intensity

Phil Hewitt, director of EnAppSys, said: “Whilst hard coal (which is more expensive to extract in Europe) has been declining, the cheap extraction costs and social and political cost of closing down the lignite industry has meant that this area of the European fuel mix has taken longer to reduce.

Hard Coal in the European Fuel Mix from 2015
Lignite in the European Fuel Mix from 2015 (Serbia only added into data set from 2017)

“The speed of transformation of the power industry and the ending of its long relationship with coal has been one of the stories of the UK’s transformation into 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.”

Currently only five coal-fired generation units are available to run in Britain – one at Drax near Selby, two at Ratcliffe on Soar near Nottingham and two at West Burton near Gainsborough. Some extra units are due to become available through the year ready for the winter, doubling the capacity at these three power stations.

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