LONDON - Britain has recorded its first full day without using coal power since the Industrial Revolution began more than 200 years ago.
The remarkable milestone was achieved Friday, following years of investment in renewable energy and the perfect combination of another famous British characteristic: its unpredictable weather.
“So that’s both solar and wind. And when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing together, the capacity of renewables now generates of lot of electricity. And it was that fortuitous circumstance that brought us to a day without coal,” Professor Paul Ekins of University College London told VOA.
Coal powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution, which transformed the global economy. But the cost was extremely high levels of pollution. In the 1950s blankets of smoke from burning coal combined with low-lying fog to form deadly ‘smogs’ that killed thousands of Londoners.
Britain’s last deep coal mine closed in 2015, and its nine remaining coal-fired power stations will be closed by 2025. Professor Ekins welcomes its demise. “Coal has been a fantastic energy source and no one would want to decry its historical role. But it is the dirtiest energy source. It’s dirty both locally and it’s dirty globally.”
‘Watershed' in energy transition
Hannah Martin of environmental group Greenpeace urged the government to press ahead with further investment in clean power.
“The first day without coal in Britain since the Industrial Revolution marks a watershed in the energy transition. A decade ago, a day without coal would have been unimaginable, and in 10 years' time our energy system will have radically transformed again.”
Nuclear and gas still form a big part of Britain’s energy mix. But the coal-free milestone was reached through rapid progress in renewable technology.
The cost of wind and solar energy has plummeted in recent years. Britain has invested huge amounts in offshore wind farms, which now surround much of the coastline. But Britain is lagging behind others in Europe. Portugal went more than four straight days on renewable energy in 2016.
Ekins says the rapid progress offers an opportunity for developing economies to bypass the type of polluting industrialization that once characterized Britain.
“It’s much cheaper to build decentralized solar than it is to put in a grid with a standard fossil fuel infrastructure. With the costs of solar of tomorrow, it’s going to be an absolute no-brainer.”
In the United States, President Donald Trump has enacted legislation to roll back environmental regulations, pledging to put coal miners back to work and invest in so-called carbon-capture technology.
The United States’ only offshore wind farm at Block Island came online in December. Many analysts say the plunging cost of renewables compared to coal means it will likely make little economic sense to re-open the mines.