Britain has first coal-free week in over a century

Britain swaps coal for wind power in bid to become world renewable energy leader

The UK's largest power station, Drax, has helped Britain have its first week without using coal through renewables. Drax
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For the first time in more than a century, since the height of the Industrial Revolution, Britain has gone without using coal to power its homes and businesses for more than a week.

What once seemed a distant achievement in the battle to beat carbon emissions has now become a reality as officials celebrate a major landmark in developing a green economy.

The milestone marks the first zero-coal week since the world's first electric plant opened in London in 1882.

Britain’s power transmission network, the National Grid, predicts the country’s energy network will be coal-free within the next six years.

“As more and more renewables come onto our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to be a regular occurrence.  We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon,” said Fintan Slye, the director of National Grid Electricity System Operator.

Coal now accounts for less than 10 per cent of Britain’s power output as the government pushes ahead with its pledge to phase out the last coal-fired power plants by 2025 in its commitment to cut carbon emissions.

It is a massive leap for a country once renown for being the birthplace of harnessing the power of coal.

But the legacy of the transition, which saw the last coalmine close in 2015, has left a massive scar on the communities who relied on an industry which once employed 1.2 million people in nearly 3,000 collieries.

Selby Coalfield, in North Yorkshire, was known as Britain’s ‘superpit’ and was once the largest in Europe producing 12 million tonnes of coal a year in the early 1990s.

It was as a result of the discovery of coalfaces in the area that the UK’s biggest power station Drax was built next nearby.

Today, its 12 large chimneys still shadow the town, dominating its skyline, as a constant reminder of a lost industry.

In its heyday mining provided jobs and vast wealth for the area but the closure of the pits, replicated in towns across the north of England, has led to high unemployment and a high street dominated by charity shops.

Former miner Simon Cahill once worked at the Selby pit and says the closures devastated the surrounding communities.

“It ruined villages, devastated families and created high unemployment. We went from boom town to ghost town,” he said.

“We were a close knit community and through the pit closures we lost the heart of our community. We have high unemployment and drug problems now. We feel betrayed by the government for not investing in carbon capture, if they had we would still have a viable coal industry. There is still 200 years worth of coal in Selby.

“Selby was a booming, vibrant town, and it destroyed us. Knowing that the UK has now gone a week coal free is upsetting. What has happened to the industry has destroyed so many areas like ours and we have just been forgotten.”

Nigel Currey set up a charity foodbank in the area due to a growing need for help as poverty continues to rise as a result of the lasting impact of the pit closures.

“When we set up eight years ago we were helping about 120 people and now it is almost 2,000,” he said.

“The majority of people are on low incomes. There is a desperate need here for help and we are struggling to meet it.”

From being a booming sector, the change came in the mid-1980s when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defeated a bitter year-long miners’ strike against colliery closures.

It gradually led to mass pit closures, seeing the number of deep coal mines reduced from 170 to just single figures costing thousands of jobs and is seen as the nail in the coffin for the industry.

With coal plants emitting almost double the amount of carbon dioxide as gas-fired power plants, the dash for gas began with ernest in the 1990s in a bid to reduce air pollution at the expense of the coal industry.

Despite Drax power station originally being built to service the surrounding pits, now it is leading the way in the country’s bid to go coal-free.

As the UK’s largest power station, Drax already generates 75 per cent of its electricity through compressed wood pellets, accounting for 20 per cent of the UK’s renewable power. Only 25 per cent of the electricity it produces annually is now coal-fired.

“By 2023 we expect to be entirely coal-free,” a spokesperson said.

“By converting two thirds of Drax Power Station to use biomass instead of coal, it has become the biggest decarbonisation project in Europe and played an important part in helping the UK to decarbonise faster than anywhere else in the world.

“As well as delivering carbon savings of more than 80 per cent compared to coal, biomass provides reliable, flexible, renewable power which can support the system when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But we’re not stopping there – we’re piloting innovative bioenergy with carbon capture technology which could enable Drax to become the world’ first negative emissions power station.”

Its pledge comes two years ahead of the government’s own commitment.

“Decarbonising our energy system is a crucial part of our commitment to ending our contribution to global warming,” a government spokesperson said.

“We’re closing in on phasing out coal entirely from our power system by 2025 as our renewables sector goes from strength to strength on our path to becoming the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions.”


Not wanting to lose its position as a world energy leader, Britain is now swapping its dominance of the coal sector with off-shore wind farms.

As the race for renewables heats up, just 30 miles away from the pits of Selby, Hull is leading the renewables revolution.

It has created Europe’s biggest off-shore wind farm and has set up a coalition with industry leaders, called Aura, led by Hull University, to develop global renewables expertise.

The ports of Hull and the Humber were once the hub of a now lost thriving fishing industry, the impact to the area was devastating and a mirror image of what is happening in the former coal mining heartlands.

But its embracing of the new renewables technology has seen it revitalised with massive investment and jobs.

The leaps the area is making in off-shore wind projects has seen it become a world leader and last week the Aura project signed a contract to share its expertise with the US to help create a wind farm in Rhode Island.

Aura director Ben George said: “I think we will see this model replicated throughout the world. We are seeing delegates from countries across the world coming here to learn from us from China to Brazil. We are creating a centre of excellence.

“The cost of the off-shore wind farms has reduced by more than 50 per cent in the last 18 months, it is proving that it is cheaper than nuclear power. It is the start of a golden age for wind and the government and industry are jointly committed to pushing this forward.

“Dubai has already invested in a massive on-shore solar project. The message here should be resonated in the Middle East that there is a future and money in this going forward.”

The UAE has pledged to see 44 per cent of its power generated from clean energy by 2050.

In March, the former head of Abu Dhabi's International Renewable Energy Agency, Adnan Amin, said if the "investment and will" was there, renewables could generate 100 per cent of the UAE's power needs within 50 years.

There are now 78 countries, up from 66 in 2000, using coal power – which equates for nearly 40 per cent  of the world’s electric.

While many countries are reducing dependence on the fuel, there is a notable blackspot where reliance on the black fuel is rising not falling.

China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter and uses half the coal consumed each year, followed by India and the US.