The UK Government is committed to phasing out all unabated generation from coal by 2025.
The elimination of generation of electricity from coal is one of the most significant steps towards net zero.
Do we still need it?
Some recent milestones for coal:
- 21 April 2017 was the first day since the Industrial Revolution that no coal was burnt to produce GB's electricity.
- During a 67 day period ending on 15 June 2020 - i.e. whilst COVID-19 restrictions had reduced electricity demand - the GB electricity supply functioned without burning any coal.
Whilst these are important achievements and milestones, it should be remembered that for most of the year coal is still burnt to ensure supply meets demand, notably to cover the intermittency of wind.
There are many occasions when coal is producing more energy than wind in Great Britain. This is because extended wind lulls require controllable resources to generate electricity when the wind isn't blowing
Current coal-fired stations
In April 2021 GB still has 3 coal-fired power stations.
One of these - Drax - has already stopped commercial generation as such and is only maintaining coal capacity until September 2022 to fulfil Capacity Market commitments.
The facility at West Burton has announced its intention to stop using coal in September 2022.
The last coal-fired power station (at Ratcliffe-on-Soar) is due to be shut down in 2025.
Until then the UK will import the relatively small quantities of coal it needs from Colombia, Russia and the USA.
When that has happened, when GB experiences extended wind lulls, it will not be possible to call on coal as a backup source.
Will we really be coal-free?
The amount of electricity generated from coal in GB that will be available to help with intermittency is going to diminish and then disappear altogether.
However, it's worth remembering that some of the energy we import using interconnectors is generated by burning coal.
The relevant carbon accounting rules mean that GB can claim we are then coal-free as the coal we're dependent on is being burnt elsewhere.