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Britain passes one week without coal power for first time since 1882

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/05/2019 Jasper Jolly
The sun rises behind Fiddlers Ferry coal fired power station near Liverpool. © Reuters The sun rises behind Fiddlers Ferry coal fired power station near Liverpool.

Britain has gone a week without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since Queen Victoria was on the throne, in a landmark moment in the transition away from the heavily polluting fuel.

The last coal generator came off the system at 1.24pm on 1 May, meaning the UK reached a week without coal at 1.24pm on Wednesday, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator, which runs the network in England, Scotland and Wales.

Coal-fired power stations still play a major part in the UK’s energy system as a backup during high demand but the increasing use of renewable energy sources such as wind power means it is required less. High international coal prices have also made the fuel a less attractive source of energy.

Related: The land where coal remains king (Bloomberg)

A security guard watches from a coal heap during a climate change protest at Ratcliffe Power Station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar. © Reuters A security guard watches from a coal heap during a climate change protest at Ratcliffe Power Station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar.

The latest achievement – the first coal-free week since 1882, when a plant opened at Holborn in London – comes only two years after Britain’s first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution.

Burning coal to generate electricity is thought to be incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate change, and the UK government has committed to phasing out coal-fired power by 2025.

Reductions in coal use in the UK have been responsible for halving electricity generation emissions since 2013, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), whose report last week called for the UK to pursue a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Miners leave after working the final shift at Kellingley Colliery on its last day of operation in north Yorkshire, England © Reuters Miners leave after working the final shift at Kellingley Colliery on its last day of operation in north Yorkshire, England

Fintan Slye, the director of National Grid ESO, said he believed Britain’s electricity system could be run with zero carbon as soon as 2025.

He said: “Zero-carbon operation of the electricity system by 2025 means a fundamental change to how our system was designed to operate – integrating newer technologies right across the system – from large-scale offshore wind to domestic-scale solar panels to increased demand-side participation, using new smart digital systems to manage and control the system in real-time.”

Greg Clark, the business secretary, hailed the achievement. He said the UK is “on a path to become the first major economy to legislate for net-zero emissions” in the wake of the report.

However, the government has also faced criticism over some of its policies. The CCC’s chief executive, Chris Stark, said on Wednesday that proposals to impose higher VAT on solar panels and its failure to give its full backing to onshore wind generation would make meeting a net-zero emissions target more difficult.

“We will need to throw everything at this challenge, including onshore wind and solar,” Stark told MPs on the business committee. “Anything that makes it harder is really not in line with the net-zero challenge overall.”

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