Long term change can , in the short term, look extremely wavy. Values ebb up and down, and too much stock is placed in narrow time-frames. But records and milestones are convenient rhetorical markers for change, and the UK has just roared past a significant one: it has been two full month-long periods without a single hunk of coal shovelled into the furnace of a single coal-fired power station.
There is a tragic element to the most recent trend; part of the reason demand has fallen so greatly is the impacts of coronavirus. But this has merely brought forward an inevitable trend.
I’m going to skip the explanations and the poetry, and bombard you with pretty visualisations of the UK’s electricity grid instead. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m sorry if this post completely kills whatever device you’re viewing it on.
First, here’s a look well into the past. The UK’s BEIS makes electricity generation data available back to 1920 (!!) and up to 2018. Over time, coal took big hits, and never punched back for any: first, from the expansion of nuclear in the 1960s which halted its growth, then gas in the 1990s which cut its output, and finally a killing blow from renewable energy and energy efficiency in the 2000s. This is the first fully zero emissions pairing to result in a real, deep cut in coal output, as both nuclear and as stall and begin to decrease.
Dig into more recent data, and the trends become even clearer. Gas share has remained steady since the early 2010s, while renewables share has grown and total demand has decreased. It is a stunning illustration of the fact that the expansion of renewable energy does not require new fossil fuels (contrary to Australia’s current insistence).
That’s it, really. It’s not the end of the UK’s climate story. Gas still comprises a sizeable percentage of the grid, and that needs to change. And once that’s done, there’s all the other sectors to consider. But no matter how you put it, or how you formulate the reasons, this is a century-long story that is reaching its conclusion today.
Now, it’s time for the fun charts. I’ll be honest – I did these because they’re pretty and because the long decline of coal in the UK is something to be happy about. First of all, here’s the UK’s coal output by the time of day, with each circle representing average values for each month from 2011 to 2020.
Cool, huh? A nice death spiral, for a technology that badly overstayed its welcome, and caused plenty of harm on the way down. Here’s the same for wind power:
There are plenty of ways we can visualise the collapse of coal in the UK. This shows the daily pattern, too, but as an animation over the same nine year period:
And, of course, the same for wind power:
I’ve tortured your web browser enough for now, surely. So if you’d like to look at some others I did, here are some links: