Use of coal in power stations in the UK has fallen to its lowest level in 150 years, leading to a 4% drop in carbon emissions according to the latest government figures.
The government’s plan to phase out the use of all coal power within the next ten years is in progress and already figures show that levels of coal consumption are at least 22% lower than they were in 2014, falling now to 38 million tonnes.
The only times comparable drops were seen were during historical miner’s strikes in 1921, 1926 and 2984. After each of these, coal use shot back up soon afterwards but given the nature of the decline this time, it is expected that levels will continue to fall well into 2016 and beyond.
Six Coal Plants Left
There are now just six coal fired power plants left active in the UK after four more closed within the last two weeks. Among these four was Longannet which, during its 46 year tenure was the largest of its kind of Britain and, at the time of its activation, the largest in Europe.
The closure of Longannet marked the end of all coal burning power plants in Scotland, a watershed moment in the government’s campaign to get rid of the power source altogether. Its closure also prompted some to question the effect such rapid decline in coal-based power may have on our energy security, given the already tight margins at which we are working at.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change, however, were quick to reassure the energy consuming population that the closure of Longannet would not lead to blackouts across the country and that it was part of a plan agreed last year, with contingency measures in place.
However, rather a lot of hopes for energy security are being placed on EDF’s troublesome Hinkley Point project which has cast further doubt over our ability to power our country.
Plenty of Options
Nevertheless, as think tank E3G director Jonathan Gaventa said: “the UK has plenty of options to cover the loss of coal-fired power through energy efficiency, renewable, interconnection with other countries and smart demand. This combination can deliver low-cost electricity reliably and quickly.”
As such, he argues: “closure of these coal plants is both expected and necessary”.
UCL’s professor Michael Grubb argued to a similar conclusion, pointing out that if we are to find ourselves in a position where blackouts become necessary, it is far more likely to be caused by “extreme weather” than “insufficient generating capacity”.
As emissions are dropping and coal plants closing, total global investment in certain fossil fuels has also (as of last week) fallen for the first time to less than half of that invested in renewable energy sources.
In 2015, some £200 billion was invested in renewable energy sources (excluding hydroelectric plants) with over a third coming from China.
Between 2014 and 2015, generation of electricity from renewable sources in the UK increase by almost a third, so that it made up 24.7% of the country’s total energy mix.
The majority of renewable energy produced came from wind farms (both on and offshore) and from the burning of biofuels, but during 2015, the production of solar power increased by 50%, making up almost a tenth of all of the renewable energy for the year.
While the closure of coal plants and reduction of emissions is being praised by environmentalist groups across the country, the current government’s repeated slashing of subsidies for renewable energy sources and cancellation of projects like the Carbon Capture and Storage competition has been widely criticised. In particular, following the COP21 summit in Paris last year, all eyes are on the government to see how we are to meet the carbon reduction targets that were agreed upon.
Investors Need Clarity
The UK is currently the only G7 member to actually be increasing subsidies for companies generating power through the burning of fossil fuels, with Chancellor George Osborne announcing yet further financial help for the oil industry in an attempt to give it a helping hand in the wake of plummeting wholesale prices for the commodity.
RWE npower CEO, Paul Massara, spoke of this (and previous) government’s “history of incoherent energy policy” as being more responsible for the tight energy margins we have been working at than the closure of coal plants.
“Investors need long-term clarity on policy,” he said, “and they simply have not been getting it.”
Though in light of the news that investment has indeed been growing in the renewable sector (the £200 billion figure for 2015 was the highest ever), Mr Massara’s comments do lose something in their force.
Nonetheless, despite growing investment in the renewable sector, there is certainly room for improvement.
As DNV GL energy’s Andrew Garrad said: “look outside the UK and it’s clear that the direction of travel is in only one direction, towards primarily low-carbon, flexible, smart energy systems. It’s been accelerated by the Paris climate agreement, and Britain is by no means ahead of the pack in this transition.”