Inside Story

How Britain kicked coal

Once heavily reliant on coal-fired power, the British economy has taken the shift in its stride

John Quiggin 2 April 2019 776 words

Coal-fired generators, like this one, are now making a negligible contribution to Britain’s electricity needs. John Giles/PA Wire

Despite the chaos of Brexit and the difficulty of expanding renewable generation in a country where sunshine is notoriously scarce, and despite strong opposition to wind turbines, Britain has just about ended its use of coal-fired electricity. The last coal-fired power stations are set to close by 2025, but the process is almost complete already. How was this achieved?

The answer can be found in this graph released by Ofgem, the British electricity regulator. As it shows, coal (shown in orange) supplied around 40 per cent of British electricity in 2006, yet by 2018 its contribution was negligible. (The graph on Ofgem’s site is interactive, so you can see the actual numbers there.)

British electricity generation by fuel source 2006–18

Generation from gas and nuclear plants displaced substantial volumes of coal-fired power during the second half of the twentieth century, but has been virtually constant since 2006.

Coal’s elimination has come from two main sources. First, total electricity use has declined, reflecting increased efficiency. Second, wind (offshore and onshore) has expanded to the point where it is about as big a source as nuclear. Solar photovoltaics have also grown strongly, though they contribute only about 3 per cent of total generation. The few remaining coal-fired generators operate as backup supplies, used only to meet peak demand in winter.

The result of the end of coal-fired power, and the twentieth-century shift away from coal-burning heavy industry, is that Britain has reduced CO2 emissions to the levels of 1888. A complete phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation is anticipated by 2025.

Given Britain’s substantial reliance on gas, further reductions in CO2 emissions from the electricity sector are more problematic. At least Britain, unlike Germany, didn’t hamstring its decarbonisation efforts by mandating the early closure of its nuclear power plants. The contribution from nuclear power may even increase if the Hinkley Point C power plant, now in the early stages of construction, is ultimately completed. But the massive cost of that project has led to the abandonment of most remaining proposals for new plants. Over the next couple of decades, most of the existing nuclear fleet will reach the end of its scheduled operating life and will need to be replaced or refurbished.

If the costs of renewable electricity continue their steep decline, some of the older gas-fired power stations built during the 1990s “dash for gas” may be retired over the next few years. A complete shift away from gas is a long way off, however.

Even with these problems, decarbonising electricity is just the easy bit. Reducing, and ultimately eliminating, emissions from transport and industry will be much more difficult.

Against the general trend of declining emissions, CO2 emissions from Britain’s road transport industry have risen recently, driven by the shift away from diesel engines and from passenger cars to SUVs. The only long-run solution is electrification, which will require further expansion of renewable generation.

The British government has promised to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, but the task of conversion will need to begin almost immediately. The same is true in Australia, where Labor has announced that it will seek to make electric vehicles 50 per cent of new car sales by 2030 and to ensure the government fleet reaches that goal by 2025.

Reducing emissions from industry is even more difficult, since each industrial process has its own needs, and most of them are built around carbon-based fuels. One positive recent step has been the announcement that Britain’s largest remaining steelworks, at Scunthorpe, will construct an electric arc furnace for recycling scrap in order to offset recent reductions in raw steel production capacity. This raises the global issue of the need to improve scrap recovery and shift the balance of steel production from crude steel to recycling.

Despite these continuing challenges, the ease with which Britain, the birthplace of the modern industrial economy, has abandoned coal-fired electricity gives the lie to those in Australia who claim that decarbonising the economy will be ruinously expensive.

In nearly all respects, Australia is better placed now than Britain was in 2006 to break with coal-fired electricity. Admittedly, we are starting from a higher coal share, in part because we avoided the false promise of “too cheap to meter” nuclear power back in the 1970s. Against that, we have substantial existing hydro resources, with Snowy 2.0 as a possible expansion, far more sites for onshore wind and, of course, a massively greater potential for solar energy. Even more importantly, we can take advantage of more than a decade’s worth of technological improvement that has driven down the cost of renewable energy and storage by factors of 80 per cent or more. •