The ninth episode of series three of the historical drama The Crown depicts the miners’ strike of 1972 which caused UK-wide blackouts. The miners picketed “power stations and all other sources of fuel supply” according to a 16 February 1972 BBC article. Of course, in those times “power stations” meant coal burning power plants. As recently as 10 years ago, 40% of the Britain’s electricity still came from coal; however, as recently reported, at midnight on Wednesday 10 June 2020 Britain went a full two months without burning coal to generate power.
In their Global Energy Review 2020, the IEA reported that the Covid-19 outbreak has “curtailed electricity use and industrial production in most countries, pushing down global coal consumption”. The IEA estimated coal generated power declines across the globe ranging from a 5% decrease in China to a 25% decline in demand in the US and around 20% in the EU.
Of the four remaining coal plants in the UK (Drax, West Burton, Kilroot and Ratcliffe on Soar), one, Drax, has been switching from coal to compressed wood pellets during the past ten year, while the other three are scheduled to be shut down within the next five years.
While this is positive news for the environment, these coal power stations have been taken offline due to plummeting electricity demand caused by the coronavirus mandated lockdown. Many have predicted a rebound in electricity demand along with CO2 emissions in a post-Covid world. However, a previous drop in demand may have been sufficient to allow some coal power stations to be taken offline, the energy supply distribution in Great Britain may not have allowed for a complete halt to coal burning. According to Carbon Brief, coal still accounted for 43% of the electricity supplied as recently as 2012. Meanwhile Gas, Nuclear and Biomass, Wind, Solar and Hydro accounted for a combined 54%. Fast forward to May 2020, and these sources have accounted for approximately 89% of the electricity supplied to date.
This increase could only be possible through significant investment in the infrastructure and innovation needed to make these technologies commercially viable. Despite all the hardship the coronavirus has brought, this unexpected benefit provides hope the UK will be able to meet the 2050 net zero emissions target and live up to the Paris Agreement’s climate change goals which have been brought into sharp focus in recent months.