Should we celebrate over 60 days without coal?
2 July 2020
There was considerable joy and celebration when Great Britaon celebrated over 60 days in a row without burning any coal to generate electricity. This happened in June 2020, and was a new record.
In our quest to rid our electricity generation of the use of fossil fuels this seems to be a very significant further step.
But be a little cautious about this, as all is not as it may seem.
In that 67 day period demand was siginificantly reduced due to the lockdown in the UK. This certainly helped us to avoid the burning of coal. If you look at some of the celebratory reports you may get the impression that renewables somehow "stepped up" to fill the space that might once have needed coal. But what happened was quite the opposite, in fact.
During that period wind was very much below average and - as usual - variable and unpredictable. Gas did most of the "heavy lifting" of keeping our lights on, but a significant part of what would otherwise have been a deficit was filled not by renewables but by the 5 interconnectors that we currently - and increasingly - use to supplement our electricity supply.
The one that provided the most energy was the one to and from France. This one supplied us with electricity that was mostly produced by nuclear reactors, France's supply being mostly from nuclear sources. The second largest contributor was the Dutch one. In the Netherlands about 15% of electricity is generated from coal, and that's how 15% of what we got would have been generated. Belgium was next, a country which still has limited generation from renewables. Then there were the two connectors to the island of Ireland, where electricity is still generated from coal and peat. Those four "lesser" contributors all rely heavily on fossil fuels.
According to the relevant regulations, the emissions for generated electricity are attributed to the source, so it's absolutely within the rules for GB to claim that we did not burn fossil fuels to get the energy we got from the those interconnectors, but that is how it was generated.
For details of generation in each of the partner countries see our Interconnectors page.
Allowing for the amounts of energy imported from each partner and their individual generation mixes, the proportion of energy generated from each major source during the period 10 April 2020 to 15 June 2020 (67 days) is as shown in this chart.
The total amount of energy imported was roughly 2/3 the total amount of energy generated by GB wind over the same period.
There is also an associated extra consideration. Each of those countries is under the same pressure that we are in GB to eliminate fossil fuels and each of them is working towards that goal. When each of them gets there, will they still be able to supply us when the wind's not blowing there, they're no longer burning fossil fuels and are struggling to meet their own demands?