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High Voltage: UK powered without coal for three consecutive days

27/04/2018
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The National Grid Control Centre in Warwick has been a hive of activity this month.  There is a concerted effort to test the grid’s ability to operate without coal-fired power stations. For the first time since 1882, the UK’s electricity needs have been met for three consecutive days without any coal being burnt.
(The National Grid Control Centre, Warwick. Image via Department of Energy and Climate Change).
(The National Grid Control Centre, Warwick. Image via Department of Energy and Climate Change).
  
The National Grid is a high-voltage electric power transmission network. It connects power stations with major substations, and it balances the electricity supply with expected consumer demand.  The control centre has reported a record-breaking 76-hour period of coal-free electricity generation.  The previous 54-hour record was set just last week, and there are ambitious plans to test the network further.  

During the trial, electricity generated by gas-fired power stations accounted for 30.3% of the nation’s electricity needs. Renewable and low-carbon sources also contributed significantly. Wind farms provided 24.9% of the output, and nuclear power stations generated 23.3% of the total requirements.
Energy mix the period 21.04.18-24.04.2018
The Edison Electric Light Company opened the world’s first coal-fired power station in London in 1882. Since then, coal has been of an ever-present feature of the national power supply.  Over the last two decades, the proportion of electricity produced by coal has fallen dramatically. There are now just eight operational coal-fired power stations in the UK. The British Government has set a target of closing them all by the end of 2025.  

Fossil fuels can generate huge amounts of energy and are extremely efficient. However, their polluting effect on the environment has promoted the use of renewable energy and low-carbon forms of power.  The 2008 Climate Change Act requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 80% compared with 1990 levels by the year 2050.  It should be noted that whilst coal use is declining, to a large extent the gap this is being filled by the increased use of gas-fired power stations.  Fossil fuels continue to play an important role in electricity production.  Commenting on the National Grid’s recent trial, Dr Andrew Crossland from the Durham Energy Institute, said: ‘The challenge is that British coal is not just being substituted by renewable electricity – it is also being replaced by gas. This often-overlooked fossil fuel pervades most of our energy system’.
(Fiddlers Ferry coal-fired power station, Cheshire. Image via public domain).
(Fiddlers Ferry coal-fired power station, Cheshire. Image via public domain). 

Overall there is a historic shift away from the use of coal, in favour of less carbon-intensive forms of electricity generation. In 2015 coal accounted for 22.6% of total electricity consumption. This figure fell to just 7% in 2017.  In recent years, there also has been significant investment in nuclear energy and in wind power. This investment is helping to replace the electricity lost by the closure of coal-fired power stations. 

Nuclear power stations generate a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity, and they are central to plans for the future.  Hinkley Point C is the first nuclear power station to be built in a generation. It is currently being constructed and it is expected to be operational by 2025. Once complete, it will produce in excess of 3,200 MWe. At current levels of consumption, this would amount to 7% of national electricity demand. Hinkley Point C is a hugely ambitious and expensive project – it will generate an enormous amount of electricity and construction costs will exceed £20bn.  Whilst nuclear power plants are expensive, they are a reliable source of low-carbon electricity and they have long lifespans. 
(Sheringham Shoal offshore windfarm, North Sea. Image via public domain).
(Sheringham Shoal offshore windfarm, North Sea. Image via public domain). 

Wind power is providing a growing percentage of the national electricity supply.  The UK is now the sixth largest producer of electricity from wind power. In April 2018, the total number of wind turbines stands at 8,762 and this figure is set to rise significantly in the years ahead.  Earlier this month, construction began on the European Offshore Wind Development Centre (EOWDC) in Aberdeen Bay.  This is a collection of eleven enormous off-shore wind turbines. Once completed, these turbines will be some the largest and most powerful in the world. These super structures are 191 metres tall and the turbines will each have a circumference which is greater than that of the London Eye. It is anticipated that this wind farm will generate 312 GWh of electricity each year. Megaprojects like this demonstrate the potential of renewable energy sources. 

The UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations are scheduled to close over the coming decade. There will be profound changes to the electricity generation network and there is on-going investment in alternative energy sources. At the time of writing, the National Grid Control Centre is attempting to establish another new record for coal-free electricity generation.
 
At Fircroft, we’re really excited about current developments in the electricity network. We recruit engineering professionals to work on some of the largest and most interesting energy projects across the globe. 

Reenergise your career and register with Fircroft today. We have a range of roles available in Power, Nuclear and Renewables. 
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High Voltage: UK powered without coal for three consecutive days - Time to read 5 min
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