Phil Noble/Reuters

U.K. coal use fell off a cliff in 2016. What comes next is complex, but promising.

What happened to coal use in Britain last year is so striking that it's almost hard to believe. In the past 12 months, coal consumption didn’t just decrease: It dropped so sharply that graphs like this one make it look like coal has been pushed off a cliff.

On the decline since December 2005 after a post-millennium high of 7.7 megatons in a month, consumption in October 2016 dropped to a relatively minuscule 0.7 megatons. And what still remains is set to disappear soon, as the U.K. has promised to phase out all coal-fired power plants entirely by 2025. Britain’s power generation has shifted so greatly that the country seems (for now, at least) to be on course to meet its Paris Agreement emission commitments for 2030, though there’s still more work to do to meet goals beyond that.

These islands may have been the coal-powered cradle of the Industrial Revolution, but now the use of the black stuff looks set to soon become a thing of the past. So what happened?

In truth, coal use has been declining for some time. Following the peak in December 2005, coal burning has been dropping steadily every year. Since 2014, however, it has started to plummet, with the most extreme fall occurring last year. The chief driver is stiff carbon taxes. Britain currently levies a tax of £18 ($22.2) for every ton of carbon emitted by power plants and factories. On top of that, British coal consumers must pay an additional E.U. carbon price, which fluctuates but is currently around €4 ($4.2) per ton.

Nigel Yaxley, managing director of Britain’s Association of Coal Importers and Producers, told CityLab that these hefty national carbon taxes have inevitably pushed coal to the back of the line.

“At times of peak demand, all of Britain’s available generation are called upon to produce. As soon as you get into periods of lower demand, however, the most expensive means of producing power drop off,” Yaxley said. “Nuclear power stations always run, renewables always run when they're available. Now, gas runs in preference to coal because the tax makes the latter so much more expensive. If it wasn’t for the carbon price, however, coal would still be competitive with gas.”

This carbon tax was a key factor in precipitating the change that came in 2016: the closure of three major coal-fired power plants in 2016. This leaves eight still running nationally, now all due for imminent closure or conversion.

For anyone who wants to see a global reduction in carbon emissions, this is surely great news. It still doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.K. is shunning fossil fuels, but greener energy is certainly on the rise. In 2015, 25 percent of Britain’s electricity came from renewable sources—when combined with nuclear power, clean energy accounts for 46 percent—while last year wind overtook coal as a power source for the first time.

Compare that to the U.S., where renewables generated about 13 percent of electricity in 2015—nearly half of which was hyrdo power. Nuclear generated another 20 percent, together equaling coal’s 33 percent share of the grid. Coal consumption has also been declining in the U.S. in recent years, though President-elect Donald Trump’s promises to revive coal jobs could stall that progress. Still, in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, market forces aren’t working in the coal industry’s favor.

A windfarm is seen on Anglesey, north Wales. (Reuters)

For the time being, the space vacated by coal in Britain is largely being filled by gas, which has a relatively low market price and whose relatively lower carbon emissions means it escapes much of coal’s tax burden. With around 30 percent of the country’s electricity already produced by gas-powered turbines, Britain is set to open more gas power stations in the next few years.

Whether this is a good thing is up for debate. Carbon emissions from gas are far lower, with a modern gas power station producing between 50 and 60 percent of the carbon that coal-powered equivalents do per watt. But while this is an improvement, it still means a huge amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.

Gordon Waddington, CEO of British research initiative Energy Research Accelerator, nonetheless tells CityLab that he believes gas could function well as a stepping stone to fully renewable energy in a few decades’ time.

“While it’s true that you can find ways of producing enough juice for this country with virtually no coal, it isn’t true every month of the year,” he says. That’s especially true if there isn’t enough wind or sunlight to generate electricity, or if the energy supplies available from European neighbors are in high demand in the countries where they’re produced. “On any given day, you can get an incredibly high percentage being produced by renewables, but that doesn't tell you how much we're producing on average and how much we're producing when it's needed.”

In the meantime, Waddington says, a move toward electric vehicles could see a huge surge in demand for electricity that, perversely, could make cutting out fossil fuels entirely unviable.

“As we try to drive fossil fuels off our roads—and particularly out of our cities—we may see a paradigm shift in the amount of energy we demand,” he says. “Even with many electrical appliances becoming more efficient, if everyone drives an electric car, then the baseload requirement could go up significantly.”

Britain is already anticipating this demand with new renewable energy projects, of course (as well as a freshly approved new nuclear power plant). Most notable among them is a plan for a tidal barrage across the Bristol Channel, a scheme that will likely prove extremely expensive to contract but will avoid the erratic rises and falls in production of other renewables by having two tides each day to rely on. What may hold back this development and others like it, Waddington argues, is a lack of ways to store excess energy from times of high production in order to use it when it’s needed later—a particular challenge for renewables.

“Without a storage system, if it’s blowing a gale in the middle of the night and no one in particular wants the wind power-produced electricity, then it goes to waste, unless you've found a way to turn it into base load,” he says, adding that batteries might work on individual homes, but are probably not viable on a large scale. “I think that there is a role for legislation that actually encourages all renewable power to be used, not wasted.”

Until a solution for this problem is found, gas is still likely to play a major role, as will nuclear power, which may see a resurgence. That doesn’t mean that Britain isn’t making progress toward greener energy. Instead it seems to be embarking on a sort of long march through the modes, moving steadily toward cleaner production as it goes.  

“For every bit of renewable that comes along, we'll likely take something off the grid—and we'll always choose to take coal off,” says Waddington. “I do think we will continue to see gas-fired power stations 20 years from now, but will we see them 40 years from now? I’d say no. The same kind of pressure that coal has now had will eventually fall on other fossil fuels. We may not know how to hit the [Paris Treaty] 2050 targets, but we're well on track to hit the targets for 2030. It's an interim solution rather than a long-term one, but we can't dismiss the need for that.”

It’s thus too soon to see the departure of coal in Britain as the advent of an entirely clean future. Last year’s slump is still not solely a reflection of global coal crises. It represents a genuine attitude change that doesn’t just bode well for the arrival of more clean energy in Britain’s future. It shows that, to an extent, that future is already here.

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