The UK government has recently confirmed its 2015 pledge to halt all ‘unabated’ coal-fired power generation by 2025.
In essence, this ensures that all coal-fired power stations will no longer produce energy at all, although there is still debate over whether they would be available in emergency situations after 2025.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd made the announcement as a follow-up to a speech last November where she called coal the “dirtiest fossil fuel” and announced that the UK and Canada had made a joint commitment to totally phase out coal-fired power production by 2025 and 2030 respectively. Both France (2022) and Italy (2025) made similar announcements in 2017 to end the production of energy using coal. This coincides with commitments made in 2015 in the run-up to the Paris Agreement regarding UK, EU and worldwide emissions targets.
Coal-fired power production levels have been in freefall for a number of years, with an 84% reduction in output between 2012 and 2017. 2017 saw an average of 7% of the country’s electricity produced by coal, with as little as 2% over the course of the 2nd Quarter, and 3 full days without any production at all. The first of these, 21st April 2017, was the first coal-free day on record. Coal only contributed more energy to the National Grid than wind power on 63 days of 2017, and on 183 days against solar.
The practicalities of the phase-out were outlined by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), who will bring into effect new emissions limits of 450gCO2/kWh from 1st October 2025 – a significantly lower value than the levels of Carbon Dioxide produced by burning coal. BEIS stated that an annual average of around 6 gigawatts worth of electricity is generated by coal (enough to power 6 million homes), but that this would drop to 1.5GW by 2025 when all generation would then cease.
The process of mothballing coal-fired generating facilities has already started; three coal power stations, Longannet, Ferrybridge C, and Rugeley, were closed in 2016. Only 9 major coal-fired stations remain operational in any capacity. Even at these sites, in recent years power generation has only been sporadic to meet demand, spending less than 10% of 2015 actually producing energy.
As part of a general move towards renewable production, coal facilities are being encouraged to convert their generators towards other fuels. Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire (the largest generating capacity of any power station in the UK) currently has 3 units burning coal, with another 3 using biomass, including clean-burning wood. Similar conversion plans have been mooted at other facilities, whereas full closure is expected for less practical, or profitable, power stations.
The shortfall in electricity production is expected to be covered by increases in production by renewable sources, especially wind and solar, that performed strongly in 2017, with over 50% of nationwide power from renewable and nuclear sources for the first time in history. Similarly, Hinkley Point C, the UK’s newest nuclear facility, is expected to go online in 2025.