Celebrate UK's coal-free week?

UK experiences coal-free week for first time since 1882

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Should we celebrate the UK's coal-free week?

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

Coal was once the country's top energy source, but the UK's reliance on the fossil fuel has declined in recent years.

So much so that Britain experienced its first coal-free week since the reign of Queen Victoria at the start of the month.

It has been hailed as "a landmark moment" in the transition from the heavily polluting energy source.

However, at the same time, the renewables revolution is stalling.

The Claim

Britain has gone a week without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since 1882, the Guardian reports.

It is the first coal-free week since Queen Victoria was on the throne, and comes only two years after Britain’s first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution.

They call it "a landmark moment in the transition away from the heavily polluting fuel".

According to the National Grid Electricity System Operator, which runs the network in England, Scotland and Wales, the coal-free week ran from 1.24pm on Wednesday, May 1 to 1.24pm on Wednesday, May 8.

The Guardian explains: "Coal-fired power stations still play a major part in the UK’s energy system as a backup during high demand but the increasing use of renewable energy sources such as wind power means it is required less.

"High international coal prices have also made the fuel a less attractive source of energy."

The Counterclaim

While some are welcoming it as a sign the UK is going green, the New Scientist's Michael Le Page argues, the bigger picture is "less encouraging".

He says the renewables revolution is stalling, noting that they supplied only 23 per cent of electricity during the coal-free week - 45 per cent came from natural gas.

Le Page argues: "The thing is, generating electricity without burning fossil fuels is relatively easy. It is much harder to heat homes, power cars, ships and planes, make cement and steel, and grow food without producing any greenhouse gases.

"So if we are struggling with the easy part, what chance do we have of doing the hard stuff?"

Coal is expected to provide only one per cent of electricity in the UK this year, and should be phased out within six years. But this is, in his words, "not quite as brilliant as it seems".

Coal may be on the way out, but there are concerns over what it will be replaced with. The UK is now getting 11 per cent of its electricity from biomass, much of it imported wood. This is not a renewable energy, and it is damaging to the environment.

Le Page concludes: "So we should cheer the end of coal - but continue to worry about how it will be replaced."

The Facts

Coal used to be Britain's top energy source only four years ago, but it has dropped down to sixth in recent years.

The fossil fuel was responsible for less than 10 per cent of Britain's power in 2018, behind gas, nuclear, wind, imports, and biomass.

Between 2012 and 2018, electricity generated from coal in the UK fell by 88 per cent, decreasing by a quarter from 2017 to 2018 alone, according to Business Green.

Coal-fired power plants currently fuel 37 per cent of global electricity - and in some countries, this percentage is higher.

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