Coal has been part of the UK’s electricity mix since the very beginning of centralised power generation. The world’s first coal-fired power station was built in Holborn, London in 1882, putting the UK at the forefront of cutting-edge technology at the time. The fossil fuel is a reliable means for both baseload power and providing a quick response when generation levels unexpectedly dip or demand increases. But the amount of carbon emitted through coal-fired generation is considerably higher than alternative generation sources, especially renewables. The move to Net Zero carbon by 2050 means the UK must phase-out all coal-fired generation before this point if we’re to hit our reduction targets.
Back in 2015 coal-fired generation was responsible for around 25% of the UK’s power supply; a decade ago it was higher still at 40%. By 2020 coal’s contribution had dropped to 1.8%. We also saw the longest “coal free” period on the system of two consecutive months, during Q2 2020.
The government had previously set a target to remove coal from the power generation mix by 2025. But recently it was confirmed unabated coal must actually be switched off from 1 October 2024, one year ahead of schedule. New legislation is required to enact this change.
Energy and Climate Change Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said the UK’s future “will be powered by renewables” and bringing forward the end of unabated coal generation by a year sends a “clear signal […] the UK is leading the way”. She said the government was “serious about decarbonising our power system” in order for the UK to hit “world-leading” climate targets.
The absence of coal within the UK’s generation mix will be made up from other, greener sources, including wind. While coal wasn’t in use for 5,000 hours last year, wind power broke its own record by contributing over 24% to the mix. During 2020 renewables sources generated over 43% of the UK’s electricity generation – 24.2% wind, 12.6% bioenergy, 4.2% solar and 2.2% hydro.
The big push to remove coal from the power system ties up with the UK’s COP26 Presidency. While heading up the international organisation, the UK is prioritising the transition from coal to cleaner alternatives. Ahead of the Summit in Glasgow later in 2021, the UK is asking governments around the world to legislate dates to phase-out coal in their own countries and end investment in coal. During the recent G7 meetings for climate and environment ministers, countries agreed to end new coal financing projects by the end of 2021. All countries within the G7 also committed to accelerate the transition away from coal, to a mostly decarbonised power generation system by the 2030s.
COP26 President Designate Alok Sharma said the UK’s actions show the world that “clean power is the way forward”. As part of the Presidency, the UK set up the COP26 Energy Transition Council. Their purpose is to find solutions to speed up the transition to a low cost, low carbon, inclusive and resilient global power systems. Removing coal from the power generation mix is a key aim of the Council.
Only coal used for power generation is impacted by the government’s policy change. Coal used in steel production and domestic coal mining is unaffected.