Q2 2018: Britain edges closer to zero coal

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For the third summer in a row, coal is edging closer to extinction in Britain, producing nothing for 12 days during June. Coal supplied just 1.3% of Britain’s electricity over the quarter, and its share fell below 1% for the first time in June.

Britain is racking up more ‘zero-coal’ hours than ever before. No coal power stations were running for 812 hours during quarter 2 (37% of the time). There were as many coal-free hours this quarter as in the whole of 2016 and 2017 combined. Britain went for three days straight with no coal (76 hours) from the 21st to 24th of April, and saw two other runs more than 48 hours. The previous record was 40.5 hours in 2017. 

The number of hours in each month with no coal output 

At the times when coal is running, it is now at a bare minimum. Apart from two cold spells in April, coal rarely went above 1 GW – just half the peak output of one of Britain’s remaining coal-fired power stations. Overall, the fleet ran at just 3% of its rated capacity across the quarter. One question is why is this small amount still needed – could Britain simply run with no coal over the whole summer? 

Yes, it likely could. Much of the coal output during May and June has been for system stability rather than providing bulk energy. National Grid called on specific coal stations in the North of England to balance the system, predominantly overnight. During June, coal stations produced 50% more output overnight than during the day, despite demand being one-third lower. 

Coal was responsible for 6% of carbon emissions from generating electricity over the quarter (less than 1 million tonnes of CO2). Meanwhile, gas supplied 41% of demand, and was responsible for 82% of emissions (11 million tonnes). So, while it would be a clear symbolic victory to remove coal from the system for entire months at a time, its impact on the climate in summer months is no longer significant. Using coal for balancing, if it happens to be in the right place and at the right price may be sensible until there are more low-carbon forms of generation for system balancing

Hourly coal output during 2018 (below left). The monthly average share of the generation mix (below right) 

Authors: Dr Iain StaffellProfessor Richard GreenDr Rob Gross and Professor Tim Green.

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