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Rake over the coals

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For the first time since the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, Britain lived an entire day without coal-generated electricity. On Friday 21 April, West Burton 1, the only coal-fired plant in the country, went offline and remained that way for 24 hours.


For people in the know, it wasn’t a surprise; the UK has enjoyed some, although shorter, periods of coal-free energy before. The longest, 19 hours, occurred a few days earlier, replicating a similar period in May 2015.

The National Grid published the news as a sign of times to come, with coal-free days becoming increasingly common. Campaigners welcomed the good news. Greenpeace said: “It marks a watershed in the energy transition”, while the World Wide Fund called it “a significant milestone in our march towards the green economic revolution.”

Getting rid of coal from the energy mix is, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction. The real impact of this fact, however, remains unclear, as is its effect in the reduction of emissions and, consequently, climate change.

Howard Dawes, senior consultant (Environment) at the British Safety Council, thinks that achieving coal-free for 24 hours is something to celebrate, but he does not perceive it as an unequivocal sign towards the reduction of fossil fuels. “Gas still accounts for 30% of energy supply in the UK and while April 2017 may have been a landmark, the next 100 years are going to see a wholesale transformation in energy supply and demand”, he told Safety Management.

His cautious optimism is in tune with those of others environmentalists. Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at the WWF, expressed a similar concern: “We haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport”, he said to The Guardian after celebrating the coal-free day. 

​The use of coal has significantly declined in the UK in recent years. Coal accounts for 9 per cent of electricity generation, down from 23 per cent in 2015 and 30 per cent lower than 2010, according to Energy in the UK 2016 report, published by Energy UK. Coal energy reached its peak – 221 million tonnes – in 1956, while in 2016 only 18 million tonnes were produced.

The coal-free energy day did not occur in a vacuum either. Gas and renewable energies play an increasing role in the power mix globally. In April, energy companies from every EU nation – except Poland, which depends on coal for around 90% of its electricity, and Greece, which still plans to build new coal plants – vowed a moratorium on new investments in coal plants after 2020.

Eurelectric, which represents 3,500 European utilities companies with a combined value of over €200bn, reaffirmed the pledge to deliver on the Paris agreement on climate change.

In 2015, the global coal production showed its largest decline since the International Energy Agency (IEA) records began in 1971. Furthermore, the same year the total global coal consumption for energy decreased by 2.6 per cent. According to the IEA, this decline was the result of a multitude of factors, from the deliberate phase out of coal use in countries such as Denmark, France and the United Kingdom, to the Chinese government decision to limit overproduction and set quotas for mine operating days. The falling demand for coal in the United States also influenced decline in production.

In 2016, coal was responsible for 30 per cent of energy generation in the USA, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration, while renewables showed an increased presence in the energy mix. 

Last March, however, the Trump administration lifted the ban on new coal leasing on federal land, a policy shift from one of the cornerstones of the climate change agenda taken by President Obama. How this shift, together with other measures affecting the budget and power of the Environmental Protection Energy, will influence the coal production and the climate change commitments remain to be seen.

 Coal has been central to global development, powering the industrial revolution and the trade union movement, but it also emits more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, plus deadly toxins such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter, which are responsible for more than 20,000 deaths each year, according to a research from Stuttgart University’s Institute for energy economics and commissioned by Greenpeace International in 2013.

“And that is the point”, Howard continues, “we’ve been burning coal for energy generation on an industrial scale in the UK since the end of the 19th century, the environmental consequences of which we see today on a global scale. It’s been said we are now entering a Third Industrial Revolution. As this evolves, let’s hope the environmental, social and economic impacts of this are a win, win, win.”

The UK plans to close the last coal station in 2025. When that happens, it will be the end of an era that started in 1882 when Thomas Edison opened the Holborn Viaduct power station to illuminate London. At the time, the big news was enthusiastically assessed by The Observer: “A hundred weight of coal properly used will yield 50 horse power for an hour [and] will supply at least a light equivalent to 150 candles.”.

It would make sense if, having been the first country to use coal for energy, the UK becomes the first one to get rid of it. Let’s wait for the news.

 

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