Britain just went a day without coal for power

Credit: Lisa Qian/ Credit: Lisa Qian/

On Friday, April 21, Great Britain finally turned off the coal — for 24 hours, at least. This marks the first day since the Industrial Revolution that Britain did not rely on coal to power its electricity.

The Industrial Revolution, a transition between manufacturing processes, began in Great Britain in the early 1800s and saw the emergence of coal as a primary energy source. Since then, coal has shaped industries, jobs, and lifestyles for mining towns in Britain and around the world.

As is the case with any fossil fuel, coal affected the climate over the centuries. Burning coal results in pea soup fogs — thick smog that contains soot particles combined with sulfur dioxide. In comparison to burning natural gas, burning coal results in nearly twice as much carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. To combat the greenhouse gas effect, scientists are looking more closely into alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind.

There has been a steep decline in the coal industry in recent years, culminating in the last deep coal mine in Britain closing in 2015. Britain as a whole is aiming to phase out all coal production and rely solely on natural gas and renewable energy.

“Symbolically, this is a milestone,” said Sean Kemp, a spokesman for National Grid, Britain’s power grid operator. “A kind of end of an era.”

This isn’t the first time the National Grid has cut coal. Last May was the first time that coal generation of electricity dropped to zero; that only lasted a few hours, though. The second longest stretch of time the National Grid has reached without coal was 19 hours. This was made possible since, during the springtime, less electricity is used due to better natural lighting and temperature (resulting in little need for either heating or air conditioning). The power-down that recently happened, however, lasted from Thursday at 11 p.m. until Friday around midnight.

“To have the first working day without coal since the start of the Industrial Revolution is a watershed moment in how our energy system is changing,” said Cordi O’Hara, director of U.K. system operator at National Grid, in an interview with Financial Times.

Other countries have started jumping on the no-coal bandwagon, as well. Switzerland, Belgium, and Norway have been operating with zero coal for some years now. In the United States, which depends on coal for 30 percent of power generation, Vermont and Idaho are coal-free.

Hannah Martin, head of energy at Greenpeace U.K., told The Guardian, “The direction of travel is that both in the U.K. and globally we are already moving towards a low carbon economy.”
A “low carbon economy” is not a luxury, but a necessity to secure the health and longevity of both our planet and ourselves.

If Britain manages to make this the norm, the Northern Hemisphere could possibly reduce its carbon emissions. The Northern Hemisphere produces the most emissions.