coal miner pit

End of coal era brought forward to 2024

Image credit: DT

The UK government has brought forward the planned phase-out date for unabated coal power by one year, from October 2025 to October 2024.

The contribution of coal to the UK’s energy mix has dropped rapidly from 40 per cent around a decade ago to just 1.8 per cent in 2020, when the grid went 5,000 hours without tapping into coal-fired power. There are just three coal power plants in operation in the UK, all of which will now be expected to close by the end of 2024.

The rapid shift away from coal has been enabled largely by the growing contribution of renewable power sources. In 2020, wind power contributed approximately a quarter of UK electricity.

The government indicated in 2015 that it would regulate the closure of all the UK’s unabated coal plants by October 2025 and said last year that plans could be brought forward following a consultation. These plans have now been confirmed, and the government will introduce new legislation to accelerate the phase-out “at the earliest opportunity”.

The plans brought forward the end of a long era during which coal has been relied upon to power the grid, dating back to the world’s first coal plant in London in 1882.

“Coal powered the industrial revolution 200 years ago, but now is the time for radical action to completely eliminate this dirty fuel from our energy system,” said energy and climate change minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan. “Today we’re sending a clear signal around the world that the UK is leading the way in consigning coal power to the history books and that we’re serious about decarbonising our power system so we can meet our ambitious, world-leading climate targets.

“The UK’s net-zero future will be powered by renewables, and it is this technology that will drive the green industrial revolution and create new jobs across the country.”

The phase-out specifically puts a stop to unabated coal power, which is not paired with carbon capture and storage technology. Although the technology has been trialled at Drax power station since 2019, it does not have a commercial presence in the UK and there are fewer than 30 active commercial carbon capture and storage facilities in the world.

Alok Sharma, president of the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow, said: “The next decade will be make or break for our planet and the most powerful way we can make a difference is to end our reliance on coal. Ahead of COP26, I hope the UK’s decisive step towards a cleaner, greener future sends a clear signal to friends around the world that clean power is the way forward.

“The impact of this step will be far greater if we can bring the world with us, and so our desire to support a clean and just energy transition is central to my discussions on the road to COP26.”

While the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables and nuclear has helped significantly drive down carbon emissions as required by the legally binding target to cut emissions to net zero by 2050, further efforts will be required to cut emissions in industries such as transport, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, aviation, and home heating.

Energy UK CEO Emma Pinchbeck said: “Less than a decade ago more than 40 per cent of our electricity generation came from coal, so it’s a remarkable achievement to reach this point. As we face the challenge of cutting emissions across the whole economy, the experience of the power sector shows that, with a clear direction and the right policies in place, we’ve been able to change quicker than anyone believed possible.

“What we need now is support for the rapid growth of renewables, and secure investment in other low-carbon sources to replace fossil fuels and ensure security of supply as we increase electricity demand for heat and transport.”

Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth commented: “Although this is welcome news, coal was already fading into the history books. But ministerial boasts about taking radical action to completely eliminate this dirty fuel ring hollow while this government is still sitting on the fence about a new coal mine in Cumbria.”

The 2024 phase-out only applies to coal for electricity generation and does not include uses of coal for other uses, such as in steelmaking. The government came under criticism earlier this year for failing to intervene in the go-ahead for a coking coal mine in Cumbria, for use in steel production. Ministers are now assessing the application for the coal mine.

This week, the Coalition for Negative Emissions and consultancy McKinsey published a report which stated that projects in development will remove just a fraction of the amount of carbon that must be extracted by 2025 to meet Paris Agreement targets. It said that one billion tonnes of carbon must be removed from the atmosphere by 2025 in order to meet the target, followed by more than one billion tonnes ever year afterwards; the current pipeline of projects could remove just 150 million tonnes by 2025.

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