In Britain, the dark cloud of the COVID-19 crisis has had one notable silver lining; under the reduced energy load of a population in lockdown, the country has gone without using coal-generated energy for more than two months.
With energy-hungry industrial and entertainment sites mostly closed for the duration, the demand for electricity dropped so low that Britain’s National Grid took the island’s last four coal-fired plants offline in early April, with the last going dark on April 9. No coal has been burnt for power since then. Instead, energy has come from mostly renewable sources such as solar, wind, or wood pellets, augmented by nuclear power and a small percentage of energy imported from France, which generates most of its power through nuclear energy.
Only a decade ago, a mere 3 percent of the UK’s energy needs were meet by wind and sun, and most people viewed them as expensive, pandering to environmentalists. Today the nation has the largest offshore wind industry in the world, taking advantage of the notoriously wind-blasted Yorkshire Coast and the stormy English Channel.
Accounting for a twentieth of all UK power is one power plant, Drax, which used to burn coal. In the past three years, the plant has been converting to compressed wood pellets, a renewable if controversial change from coal-generated energy. Drax maintains that its CO2 emissions have fallen to nearly zero, but environmentalists assert that the wood pellets have a higher overall carbon footprint than coal, and the forests that must be logged to supply them are an additional damage.
All the remaining coal-powered electricity plants are scheduled to be shut down permanently before 2025. But as COVID-19 fears begin to ebb and the country takes steps towards reopening, many believe the time is now to look for ways to avoid having to reactivate them at all. Coal, that icon of Britain’s industrial revolution and source of the iconic, toxic London fogs, has worn out its welcome.
“So far this year renewables have generated more electricity than fossil fuels and that’s never happened before,” said Dr. Simon Evans of Carbon Brief.