Farewell to all that: Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire used to burn nearly 4 million tons of coal a year.
Brian Lawrence Getty Images
By Geoffrey Smith
April 21, 2017

The country where coal was first used to generate electricity commercially is set to go a whole day without coal-fired power for the first time in over 130 years.

The U.K.’s National Grid, which manages the power transmission system, said via its Twitter feed early Friday in London that “Great Britain has never had a continuous 24 hour period without #coal. Today is looking like it could be the first.” A spokesman confirmed the prediction to Fortune.

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The development is no surprise, given that the decline of coal is more advanced in Europe in general than in the U.S.. Coal had powered the Industrial Revolution that took off in England in the 18th century before spreading to the rest of the world; Thomas Edison had built the first coal-fired power station in London in 1882. At its peak, over 1 million people in Britain worked to get coal out of more than 3,000 mines.

But oil squeezed coal out of the transportation business, and pollution forced industry and households to find cleaner ways of getting the energy they needed, leaving the power sector as its only big customer. The spread of nuclear and cheap natural gas weakened it even there, allowing Margaret Thatcher to face down a year-long strike against pit closures, and providing the defining moment of her 11-year rule.

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While the spread of renewable energy has forced coal off the grid more recently, it’s gas that that is giving it the coup de grâce. Slumping gas prices – a function of similar developments in oil markets – led gas-fired output to jump 51% last year, providing over 40% of the U.K.’s total power, according to monitoring firm EnAppSys. Renewables, meanwhile, accounted for 22%, it reckoned.

Further gains by renewables will be harder as the government withdraws expensive subsidies, but the U.K. – already Europe’s biggest wind energy producer – is now fast expanding offshore capacity. Over 10,700 megawatts of new projects, the equivalent of 10 standard nuclear plants, has been consented, almost all of it in the North Sea.

“To have the first working day without coal since the start of the industrial revolution will be a watershed moment in how our energy system is changing,” said National Grid system operator director Cordi O’Hara. “However, It’s important to remember coal is still an important source of energy as we transition to a low carbon system.” As a rule, the system operator gives privileged grid access to renewables, while nuclear and fossil fuel-powered plants then compete to satisfy the rest of the country’s demand. Demand this Friday is relatively low, meaning that the grid can satisfy demand without resorting to any coal-fired plants.

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Meanwhile, symbols of the old giving way to the new abound: Drax power station, once Europe’s second-largest power station capable of generating 4,000 megawatts from coal, has now been converted to run mostly on wood pellets imported from the U.S.. Didcot A, a coal-burning giant that burned nearly 4 million tons of coal a year and powered much of London in its heyday, was closed in 2013, and its boiler-house collapsed as it was being prepared for demolition in 2016, killing four people.

 

 

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