The UK had a coal-free week — the first time since 1882

The UK’s powerplants haven’t burned any coal for the last five days, the longest streak since the Industrial Revolution.


Image credits Rahel Jalal.

Since May 1st, 1 pm, power plants in the UK haven’t burned a single lump of coal. This is the country’s first coal-free week since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in 1882, according to the BBC. Wind, gas, and nuclear power have covered the demand.

Cut the coal

“As more and more renewables come onto our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to be a regular occurrence,” says Fintan Slye, Director of UK System Operator at National Grid.

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

Another factor that helped this coal-free stretch was timing: grids are more likely to reach carbon-neutrality in spring (or autumn) when winds are high and days are long enough for solar panels to have a sizeable output. At the same time, domestic demand for energy is still relatively low, as customers don’t need to cool, heat, or light their homes that much.

The country has previously managed to go coal-free — both last year and earlier this year — but never for so long. Coal doesn’t have a very large presence in the UK’s energy grid to begin with — under 10% of the country’s energy is currently derived from coal-fired plants. The country is a global leader in offshore wind energy, and can also draw on nuclear power as a green option. However, the UK is quite fond of gas-fired plants and, while definitely cleaner than coal, gas-fired plants still generate emissions (both during gas extraction and burning), so this coal-free period wasn’t also emissions-free.

Still, this was definitely a step in the right direction. There’s been a worldwide move away from coal and towards renewables for the last few years, although it seems to have stalled somewhat last year as several countries added more coal to their grids. Coal currently ranks second to oil as a main source of energy worldwide. Coal is one of the largest single sources of carbon emissions in the world and a key driver of climate change.

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