Britain went a whole week without coal power for the first time since 1882

Wind turbines
Image credit: RawFilm on Unsplash

For the first time since the late 19th century, Britain has gone for an entire week without using coal-generated electricity. 

The National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO), which which runs the network in England, Scotland and Wales, confirmed that on May 8 that Great Britain has not used any coal for the production of electricity for a full seven days – a landmark figure of 168 hours without coal-powered electricity. There have been over 1,000 hours of coal-free electricity production so far in 2019.

The UK government has already committed to dramatically reducing coal-generated power. The long-term aim is to completely phase out the use of coal by 2025, and for the UK to be the first major economy to pass legislation for net-zero emissions. 

National Grid ESO says it believes that it will be able to operate the British electrical system on a zero carbon basis. The UK has been gradually moving towards higher use of renewable energy sources, but coal-powered stations still exist as a backup.

The new normal

National Grid ESO says that we should expected periods without coal usage to become increasingly common in the future. In a statement sent to TechRadar, company director Fintan Slye said: "While this is the first time this has happened, I predict it will become the 'new normal'." This is something that is welcomed by environmental groups and industry bodies.

Slye explained that new technology has been key to making progress. "Zero carbon operation of the electricity system by 2025 means a fundamental change to how our system was designed to operate – integrating newer technologies right across the system – from large scale off-shore wind to domestic scale solar panels to increased demand side participation, using new smart digital systems to manage and control the system in real-time."

He added: "To help us reach today's significant milestone, we have been working with industry over the last few years to ensure the services we require to operate the network are not dependent on coal.

"We have been forecasting the closure of coal plant and reduced running for some time – due to us having to manage more renewables on the system. Transmission owners have invested in their networks accordingly and we have refined our operational strategies and real time operation of the network to ensure continued secure and economic operation."

The race to net-zero

RenewableUK is the trade association for the renewables industry, promoting the adoption of clean energy systems. In a statement to TechRadar, deputy chief executive Emma Pinchbeck says that wind and other renewable energy sources are playing an important role in reducing carbon emissions: "Wind has become a mainstream power source for the UK, providing up to 35% of our electricity over the weekend.

"Renewables overall are playing a leading role in our energy mix – and have been crucial to phasing out dirty coal. The coal phase out is just the beginning of a move away from fossil fuels to low carbon living, to avoid the enormous risks of climate disruption. Last week, the Committee on Climate Change said we can only achieve net-zero emissions with a massive increase in renewables.

"Government has been told to act now to build on the coal phase out, investing in our world-leading renewable industry and the jobs it brings, including technologies that are absent from Government policy, from innovative wave and tidal to cheap onshore wind."

But, while there is an increasing shift to the use of renewables, in phasing out the use of coal, there's also been an increase in the use of gas-powered electricity. This is still a concern, and the 2008 Climate Change Act requires an 80% reduction in emissions from 1990's levels by 2050.