In 1882 Holborn Viaduct was lit up with electric light, along with nearby houses, a post office and a church. It was a demonstration project by Thomas Edison, a way of showing the viability of his electric lighting and raising investment for his ventures. Powering the system was the the world’s first public power station, opened eight months earlier than Pearl Street in New York, which is often cited as the first.
Installed at number 57 Holborn Viaduct was a 27-tonne coal-burning steam engine. From that day, the 12th of January 1882, Britain has been burning coal for electricity.
Until last week.
On Sunday afternoon on the 8th of May, none of Britain’s remaining coal power stations were online and the 134 year run of coal power was broken. Over the last week there have been seven different points when the grid was running coal-free.
This is quite something. You may remember that just three years ago coal was providing 40% of our power. It staged a bizarre comeback as fracking drove down gas prices in the US, depressing coal demand and making it cheaper for the rest of us. That comeback is now over. Coal is now being squeezed out by gas, renewable energy, declining electricity demand, emissions regulations, and concern over climate change. There have been a string of coal company bankruptcies in the past couple of years, including Peabody last month.
Now, if you’re a tabloid journalist, this isn’t good news. It’s a sign of crumbling infrastructure, EU meddling, and blackouts on the way. And yes, coal power stations breaking down may well be a factor in its tempory disappearance from the grid this month. But the role of renewable energy in displacing coal is plain to see: this milestone comes swiftly on the heels of two renewable energy records in the last few weeks. First, wind turbines provided more power than coal in April, the first time it has overtaken coal over the course of a month. And solar power out-performed coal over 24 hours for the first time last month. So coal power didn’t fail us. We just didn’t need it at that point, and that’s exactly what we want to see.
Before we get too excited, coal will be with us for a while yet. Coal power is dependable and easy to turn on in a way that few other forms of generation can match. It’s all very well to beat it in summer, but demand for electricity is higher in winter, when solar is less efficient. We’re going to need it a little while longer. Still earlier this year the government announced that it would like to phase out coal entirely by 2025, and that is looking increasingly achievable, especially since Scotland has done it already.
The end of coal isn’t here yet, but it can be sighted from afar.