The United Kingdom’s decision to phase out coal-fired generation by 2025 is a “stunning turnaround” for the country whose “rise as the dominant global power in the 18th and 19th centuries” was driven by the fuel it is now leaving behind, freelance author and journalist Fred Pearce writes for Yale Environment 360.
While many countries are abandoning coal, “it is the speed of King Coal’s demise in Britain—its first and most important stronghold—that is breathtaking,” Pearce writes, citing energy analyst Michael Grubb at University College London. “It shows what can be done, even in an essentially market-based energy system such as operates in the UK.”
Pearce’s report focuses on the Drax Power Station in eastern England, a “coal-devouring behemoth” that produces one-tenth of the country’s electricity and stands as one of the world’s biggest coal plants. “When Drax opened for business in 1974, Britain got 80% of its electricity from burning coal. As recently as five years ago, the figure was 40%. But last year, it was 9%, and this summer coal supplied less than 2% of Britain’s electricity. On April 21, 2017, for the first time since its inception, the British power grid went 24 hours without coal.”
Between 2010 and 2016, meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions from UK power generation fell 50%, so that “the average Briton is now responsible for only about a third the CO2 emissions of the average American,” he adds. Under the new regime, “Drax will live on, but only by burning biomass—mostly wood chips imported from the southern United States.”
Pearce traces the early history of coal-burning in England, when “steam engines liberated manufacturing industries like textiles from reliance on water wheels. They allowed factories to grow in size and to be built anywhere,” feeding the growth of the country’s early, great industrial cities like Manchester.
But “with coal came pollution,” he recalls. “London became known as the ‘big smoke’. In 1952, an estimated 10,000 people died in the capital during a ‘peasouper’ smog. Long before the world became seriously concerned about coal’s contribution to climate change, Europe was worried about acid rain caused by coal burning. British power stations were discovered to be killing fish a thousand miles away in the lakes of Norway.”
Now, with carbon taxes shaping the price comparisons between electricity sources, the UK National Grid buys nuclear and renewable electricity first, then natural gas. (Though it’s hard to see how new nuclear in the UK is justified by its reliably high price.) The big story, Pearce affirms, is the big, eight-megawatt turbines that have halved the cost of offshore wind in five years.
“One consequence of the collapse of coal has been to pull the plug on the development of technology to capture stack CO2 emissions from power plants and bury it out of harm’s way,” he adds. “Britain had big plans for a network of pipelines to bury CO2 from its coal plants in former North Sea gas and oil fields, but in 2015 the government cancelled funding. The technology could still be developed for some industrial emissions, but in Britain at least, clean coal is dead because King Coal is dying.”