How Britain kicked coal

Despite the chaos of Brexit and the difficulty of expanding renewable generation in a country where sunshine is in notoriously short supply and there is strong resistance 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?

I found a useful graph from OFGEM, the British electricity regulator showing developments since 2006, when coal (graphed in orange) supplied around 40 per cent of UK electricity. By 2018, it’s negligible. The graph at the site is interactive, so you can easily get actual numbers.

It turns out that generation from gas and nuclear plants has been virtually constant over the period since 2006. These sources displaced substantial volumes of coal-fired power during the second half of the 20th century.

The elimination of coal 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 now about as a big a source as nuclear.

I have some other thoughts about the UK case, but for now I’ll leave this open for comments.

11 thoughts on “How Britain kicked coal

  1. Clearly, Margaret Thatcher was a visionary, way ahead of her time, when she closed down all those coal mines in the mid 1980s.

  2. Reduction of coal generated power is encouraging.
    Gas use is not reduced much, but is a major source of C)2 emissions.
    Nuclear power is a separate, but real threat to our survival.

  3. Does total electricity use declining including the coal generation decline reflect increased efficiency or the offshoring of industry and its substitution by imports? China’s use of coal, for example, has continued to grow, no?

  4. Are there any good forecasts for the future of British nuclear? Hinkley C is expensively under construction, but going by the precedents in Finland snd France, successful completion is not guaranteed. There won’t be other EPRs. Meanwhile the rest of the fleet enters senility. It would be nice to think that future growth in renewables will mainly cut into gas, but it’s not a sure thing.

  5. What I found interesting is that the proportion of electricity generated by coal didn’t begin to significantly decline until around 2014. So the coal phaseout has essentially been achieved in only five years, and, as you say, without a substantial increase in gas consumption. That is encouraging.

  6. Britain has a unique opportunity to harness tidal power. This may further diversify its sources of electricity supply.

  7. James, I would think solar will cut deep into summertime gas use. Looking at the UK wholesale electricity prices solar looks extremely competitive, even given that the UK skies are greyer than our own.

  8. Tim, fortunately it is possible to very rapidly get off coal, even here in Australia. First we eliminate the daily supply charge on residential electricity bills while increasing the per kilowatt-hour charge to compensate. This immediately encourages increased energy efficiency, distributed solar, and distributed battery storage while providing relief to lower income Australians who, thanks to daily supply charges, generally end up paying a lot more per kilowatt-hour used than high income Australians.

    We continue to rapidly expand solar and wind capacity and pumped hydro storage capacity. We buy a pile of second hand gas turbines from overseas and use them to firm up the grid and start closing down coal power stations as soon as enough are connected to the grid. While gas generating capacity will go up, the expansion of renewables will reduce the total amount of gas burned. Once enough pumped storage and battery storage is in place the open cycle gas turbines won’t be needed and can be shipped to other countries undergoing the process. Other technologies such as Concentrating Solar Power and thermal storage can be used — what ever works provided it is cost effective.

    If we wanted to we could eliminate coal in a time period measured in years.

  9. Elegant, and a good exposition on the integration possible that could allow us to achieve a smooth and trauma-free transition to as close to a zero emissions lifestyle as we can manage, for our kid’s sakes’.

    The type of thought processes that to those of us on the outside, who claim to comprehend some of the implications of current greed levels on our futures, find absent from our political and governmental ‘leaders’.

  10. Ronald:
    One thing Australia should definitely do is look at boosting its gas storage capacity using underground salt caverns, which are quite common once you start a serious search. This is risible today, compared to Canada, Germany, the USA, or Russia. These facilities can be very large: the Etzel complex in Saxony stores over 34Twh, 5% of annual gas consumption in Germany ( It hasn’t reached its technical limit.

    Your thought experiment. like Andrew Blakers’ using just wind, solar, pumped hydro and HVDC transmission, is good as a simple proof of principle. Once you get started, the real-world optimisation will look at the whole range of evolving technologies, including hot salt (with or without CSP), P2G and V2G.

    We can take it that V2G is feasible technically, but the market design is complicated. Start with bus fleet operators and delivery services like DHL, who have centralised charging facilities and decision-making. But Statkraft already have 12 GW of “virtual power plant” (VPP) capacity in Germany, cobbled together from renewables, batteries and the odd fossil heat engine, bidding into wholesale markets as a despatchable generator. P2G works too in a dozen pilots in Germany, but there are costs both in using raw hydrogen from the catalysis plant and in upgrading to synthetic methane or ammonia. Either way, you will need lots of gas storage.

    The P2G optimisation meshes with that for overbuild of wind and solar. Design your fleets of these to match trough weekly demand (whether this is winter or summer), with pumped hydro storage for smoothing, and you will be leaving money on the table as marginal overbuild will often be cheaper than storage. Match wind and solar to a seasonal weekly peak, and you will have a massive seasonal surplus at the other end of the year. The only plausible way of mopping this up is P2G, with electricity supply at the cost of transmission. The optimum is no doubt somewhere in between. So look for salt caverns.

  11. James, I don’t think Australia would need more gas storage capacity. If we replace a coal power station with solar and wind and firm it up in a hurry with some low cost gas turbines and a heatwave strikes, the solar capacity — especially if a lot of it is on single axis tracking — will eliminate or greatly reduce the need for gas and hydro during the day. This will leave more gas and water in the dams available for the evening. Then if necessary, late at night hydropower could be used to help charge pumped storage ready for the next day of high temperatures, which may sound odd, but makes sense.

    Then as more pumped and other storage comes online there should be less need for gas as inefficient open cycle turbines could be retired and shipped overseas.

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