Britain Goes A Week Coal-Free For The First Time Since Queen Victoria


Battersea Power Plant, London, now decommissioned. Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock

Britain has gone without coal-generated power for an entire week. If it does not sound like that big a deal, know this is the first time since the Industrial Revolution that the country has been coal-free for such an extended period of time.

The last coal generator came off the system on Wednesday, May 1 at 1.24 pm GMT, the National Grid Electricity System Operator tweeted. Thus, the week milestone was reached at the same time yesterday. 


The feat is especially symbolic because Britain was the very first country to use coal as an electricity source, beginning in January 1882 when a coal-fired power plant – designed by none other than Thomas Edison – was erected in Holborn, London. Back then, Victoria I was the reigning monarch, William Gladstone was Prime Minister, women still could not vote, and trench warfare was a non-existent concept.

And while coal remains a major stalwart on the British national grid system, the country's addiction to the black stuff is just a fraction of what it once was. In 1950, coal produced 97 percent of electricity. This had fallen to 40 percent by 2012 and was a relatively meager 7 percent by 2017. According to the UK government's website, coal consumption has dropped 80 percent over the last decade.

Part of the transition to cleaner energy supplies is driven by demand – exemplified by the student protests and the activism of groups like Extinction Rebellion – and a scientific consensus, highlighting coal's role in human-caused climate change. A more cynical reasoning might also point to Britain's declining coal stocks and market forces.

And while some might argue the shift to green energy isn't as swift as it should be, it was only two years ago that Britain made it through its first coal-free day. According to Fintan Slye, Director of National Grid ESO, this could soon be the new normal.


"As more and more renewables come onto our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to be a regular occurrence," Slye said in a statement.

"We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon."

The British government was the first to announce its commitment to phasing out coal and today there are just six active coal-fired power stations left in the country, all of which are expected to close by 2025. Today, coal primarily serves as a back-up power source during times of above-normal demand.

"We’re phasing out coal entirely by 2025 and on a path to become the first major economy to legislate for #netzero emissions," the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy tweeted.


Elsewhere in the world, there are more signs that coal is on the way out. Despite a last push by (some) politicians and industry fat cats, it is making less and less financial sense to invest in coal as renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly cheap to exploit. 

Last month, renewable energy beat coal in the US for the first month ever, while a recent Bloomberg report found that close to half the world’s electricity will be powered by wind and solar by 2050. 


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