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66% Reduction in Carbon Intensity – Can the UK Become Coal-Free?

wind energy scaled
Published on Sep 16, 2021

The UK energy market has observed significant changes in the last few years as the government officially signed the Paris agreement to reduce their carbon emissions. The move created a swift change in the energy market in the industry as more and more bills were passed, grants were released and the focus was shifted to a greener future. The UK coal power station was barely used for electricity in the recent past as all across the country, people shifted to a cleaner, greener source for their electricity.  

Solar energy in the UK and wind energy took precedence and even the sales of electric motor vehicles rose in the last five years. Production of coal and usage of other non-renewable sources of energy fell to an all-time low in 2020, falling to 58% (Department For Business, Energy & Industrial Energy) less than what it was in 1999. Although these are nothing but positive changes observed in the last few years, it does not mean that the UK government has stopped relying on coal altogether. Recently, there has been a shortage of electricity in the country which has led to the government restarting the UK coal power station, despite all the advancements in the solar energy sector in the UK. 

Is the UK going completely coal-free? 

The country has made leaps and bounds in terms of reducing its usage of non-renewable sources of energy. The consumption of coal and other exhaustible power sources has never been lower and the UK government has been sanctioning various grants and bills to help overcome this rising problem. Sustainability is the future indeed, and the country is working extremely hard towards reaching this goal.  

Reduction in carbon intensity

The Paris Agreement that the UK has signed off on as well states that the country will have zero carbon emissions by 2050 as a means to combat climate change, global warming and the rising pollution levels in the world. Most countries have participated from around the world, and the UK is one of the countries that has made the most significant changes in the last few years. So far, 2020 recorded the greenest year for electricity consumption yet in the country. The average rate of carbon intensity in the UK for electricity fell by 66% (Power Technology), which is the lowest it has been in the last seven years. 

The decarbonization of electricity is crucial to reducing carbon emissions in the UK. Coal fired power stations will soon become a thing of the past and the country will be able to function all around the year with greener sources of electricity. Wind power and solar energy in the UK are the largest contributors to this change. Although this situation is more ideal than it has ever been, it does not mean that the government has stopped the usage of the UK coal power station altogether.  

We do not live in an ideal world where everything is green and sustainable. We are still working towards making this a reality. Until that takes place, it is only to be expected that the UK government will still be using non-renewable sources of energy for at least some of its electricity needs.  

This was observed recently, about a week ago, where power shortages created the necessary demand to open up and start the UK coal power station again. This came as a shock to the citizens but the autumn winds have not been able to generate enough wind energy to be constituted for the electricity needs of the country. It is still quite warm, which means the winds have not been strong enough as they would have normally at around this time of the year.  

Currently, the coal fired power station is supplying about 2.2% of the country’s national power. The other 46.5% is from natural gas, which is another non-renewable source of energy. The emissions from natural gas are still significantly lower than that of coal. Natural gas produces about 50% (Met Group) less carbon dioxide emissions than coal. 

How does this impact the gas prices? 

Natural gas may seem like a much safer alternative to coal but it is not at all a feasible option. This is because natural gas is very limited in nature, making it a precious commodity. The heavy usage and dependency has created excessive demand for the same, making it a very costly affair. Recently, there has been an increase in the electricity tariffs in the UK already, and the rising cost of natural gas is only adding to the woes of the UK citizens. 

coal fired power station

The current plan is underway of not using coal power at all in the next few years. The UK government has decided to slowly phase out usage of all coal fired power stations by 2024, which is in the next 3 years. This is a likely possibility, but currently it is not something that can be easily achieved. The usage of solar energy in the UK is still growing at best, and the wind energy, which is the primary source of renewable electricity in the UK, is heavily dependent on the winds. Situations like the one the country faced a week ago with the lack of strong enough winds will continue to have a negative impact on the wind energy output in the country. 

So why has the shift been made to use the UK coal power station instead of natural gas? Natural gas is at an all time high when it comes to cost due to the large global demand and limited supply. The increase in demand can be attributed to multiple industries restarting their projects and countries opening up for the first time after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  

Currently the gas prices are higher than they have ever been. The cost of electricity is the highest in all of Europe at a whopping GBP540.15/MWh (S&P Global Platts) ($747.56/MWh). The shortage of gas supply has affected the country at large, and the UK government felt like they had to option but to fall back on the coal fired power stations at hand. The prices for electricity are only expected to rise and the tariffs will become even less affordable than they were before. The government is also looking at rationing out the energy output as a means to combat this problem.  

Read also: EU Unveils Sweeping Climate Change Plan – How Will it Impact the UK? 

So what other options does the UK government have in hand? 

Power lines

Is Nuclear the answer? 

The prices of natural gas and the shortage in electricity is expected to stay consistently volatile throughout this month in the UK. The warm weather observed in September is all the more reason why the country has strengthened its green electricity measures over the last few years. The impact of climate change is one of the contributing factors to this shortage of electricity in the country.  

So what else can be done to face this issue? The citizens of the UK cannot go without electricity and the tariff prices have already been revised on multiple occasions making it almost too expensive to keep a steady flow of heat and gas in the average UK household. The country’s citizens will go broke if this continues, which is why investing in nuclear power plants might be the best option available on hand.  

The option of using nuclear power plants will help balance out the existing shortages in electricity in a much more sustainable way than the coal fired power station is able to do in the country. The output of nuclear power plants is massive and the emissions are minimal. Currently, the nuclear power plants across the UK only account for 20% (World Nuclear Association) of the total electricity output, and if the government looks at it as a more sustainable option for the future, the increase in the number of the power plants may be able to bridge the gap between the electricity demand and its supply.  

There is a lot of skepticism around the usage of nuclear power plants, but if we want to build a world where we do not have to rely at all on the UK coal power station, this may be the only way out for us as a country. Keeping coal fired power stations as the final back up plan will only keep getting in the way of the country’s efforts at completely eliminating the usage of non-renewable sources of energy. 

UK coal fired power infographic


Finally, current market trend analysis and forecasts by ESG consulting have observed that people are already struggling to make ends meet this year. The reopening of the economy, the economic backlash from increasing prices by the government, and the rising costs of electricity have created an uncertain time for the average UK citizen. Creating smarter energy choices and better investments for the future is the only way this problem can be laid to rest for good for the country.