The King of Coal
Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, the United Kingdom showed the rest of the world how coal could be used to generate electricity. Coal was used as the fuel that powered the British Industrial Revolution. Through the distillation of bituminous coal, pure carbon was transformed into the power source that was able to turn iron ore into steel. Coal powered industrial machinery like James Watt’s double-acting steam engine, which led to the development of new railway locomotives and steamships. Coal was the driving force behind the reciprocating motion of Watt’s steam engine. Coal also revolutionized cotton manufacturing and the textile industry as a whole. Without coal, the British economy would not have become known as the workshop of the world during the Industrial Revolution. However, while coal was once the primary source of power and energy that fueled the rise of the world’s first industrial nation, Great Britain has broken a new record in 2020 for the longest period in modern history that the country has gone without using coal to generate electricity.
A Coal-Free Economy
The year 2020 marks the 138th year that England, Scotland, and Wales have relied on coal to generate a significant percentage of Great Britain’s electricity. Although, as the coronavirus started to ravage the global economy, Great Britain was able to shut down all of the nation’s coal plants for a period of over two months, which is the longest that the nation has been without electricity generated from coal since the 1880s (Neate, 2020). Despite the fact that coal was once a staple in the British economy for electricity generation that fed the nation’s industrial infrastructure, some energy experts say that the coronavirus pandemic has shown British policymakers that there is now a path forward to create a coal-free economy. Even though the prospect of a coal-free Great Britain may be exactly what many environmentalists have been fighting for, the World Coal Association remains committed to fighting for the future of coal.
The World Coal Association
The World Coal Association is a non-governmental organization based in London that advocates on behalf of global coal producers and stakeholders. As an organization that is based in Great Britain, the historic cessation of coal power was not well-received by members of the World Coal Association’s executive team. Since 1985, the World Coal Association has been working actively with groups and organizations such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United Nations Environmental Program, World Economic Forum, World Bank, World Economic Forum, European Parliament, European Commission, and numerous other national governments to ensure that coal continues to have a role in the global energy portfolio. One of the World Coal Association’s main goals has been to show the rest of the world that coal can continue to play a role in achieving sustainable development in addition to being an affordable and reliable source of energy.
Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been working to counter the World Coal Association’s lobbying efforts with campaigns calling for coal energy to be abandoned altogether. These environmental organizations are staunch advocates for initiatives such as the Beyond Coal Campaign, which is an effort to convince global leaders to replace coal energy with renewables. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also supported similar initiatives through Bloomberg Philanthropies and the United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action. As Great Britain revealed that it broke a record for going over two months without turning on its coal-fired power plants, these environmental organizations have stepped up their advocacy efforts to convince policy makers to make more investments in solar power and other forms of renewable energy generation.
Great Britain’s previous coal-free period record was set in 2019 when the nation went just over 18 days without using coal to produce electricity. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic having an impact on the coal industry, lower prices for other sources of energy and an increasing number of restrictions related to carbon emissions have made it more challenging in recent years to profitably operate coal-fired power plants in Great Britain. Scientists have highlighted that coal-fired power plants produce nearly double the amount of greenhouse gases of a typical natural gas power plant, which is one of the reasons why the British government has continued to move towards a goal of permanently closing down all of the country’s coal power plants by 2024 (Neate, 2020).
The coronavirus pandemic may allow Great Britain to beat its 2024 target to close all coal-fired power plants. As the pandemic has continued to slam the global coal industry, energy experts say that coal is increasingly becoming a less attractive source of power for many of the world’s developed countries. Even before the global pandemic, the coal industry was in the worst downturn that it had ever previously experienced. The brutal and unexpected shock that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the global energy industry has intensified some of the fundamental concerns about the future of the coal industry. Over the past decade, the World Coal Association has struggled to use its influence to counter the cyclical decline of coal. The situation has been particularly severe in the U.S., as newly released energy data has shown that coal demand has dropped by over 36 percent during the first quarter of 2020 (Storrow, 2020). In addition to the global glut of oil, coal companies have also a started to deal with a glut of coal. Economic researchers from S&P Global Platts, which is a global leader of energy and commodities data, say that the global stockpile of coal is approaching the highest level ever recorded.
Reduced Energy Demand
Record low power demand has enabled many of the world’s developed countries to shut down coal power generation during the first half of 2020. In addition to the incredibly low demand for power in Great Britain, the nation has experienced a record amount of sunshine, which has enabled solar power to take up a bigger chunk of the national power grid. Josh Burke, who is an energy policy fellow with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, says “The economics were not very compelling before for coal and it’s hard to see how that situation has improved in the current climate” (Thomas, 2020). As coal has been on the decline, the country’s renewable energy industry has been on a record run. May 2020 was the greenest month that Great Britain has ever experienced. According to officials with the national energy grid, May turned out to be the month that yielded the lowest amount of greenhouse gases on record, with a total of 143 grams of carbon dioxide produced per kilowatt hour of electricity generated (Neate, 2020).
Charting the Decline
The decline of coal in Great Britain has been particularly severe over the past few decades. In 1990, nearly 70 percent of the nation’s electricity was produced using coal (Thomas, 2020). According to 2019 data published by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, coal only accounted for 2.1 percent of electricity generation in Great Britain. Even with fierce advocates from the World Coal Association being located in London, this precipitous decline has continued to intensify in recent years. Government regulations related to greenhouse gas emissions, carbon taxes, and the growth of renewables has contributed to the downfall of coal in Great Britain. While coal has been on the decline, the fossil fuel industry has still been able to make up some gains through the natural gas sector, which accounted for about 41 percent of Great Britain’s electricity in 2019 (Thomas, 2020).
The dramatic fall of the coal industry in Great Britain has not been without controversy. In addition to the pressure from the World Coal Association, some labor groups have pushed back against plans to dismantle the industry. In 1960, the coal industry employed over 600,000 people in Great Britain (Thomas et al, 2019). However, since then, the number of citizens employed within the coal industry has continued to collapse, which has made some economists and coal advocates concerned about the potential economic ramifications. While these concerns have been heard by the British government, renewable energy advocates say that economic growth can be achieved by creating new jobs in the clean energy industry. Director of the environmental think tank known as the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, Richard Black, says that “The British experience shows that any country can actually do it [end coal power], it’s a question of putting the policies in place to do it” (Thomas et al, 2019). This notion is something that terrifies the World Coal Association.
U.S. Industry Struggles
The situation with the coal industry in the U.S. has mirrored that of Great Britain. While coal has been the primary source of energy in the U.S. since 1885, renewable energy generation has surpassed coal for the first time in 130 years (Neate, 2020). Some economists say that the fossil fuel crisis in the U.S. has provided a unique opportunity for the clean energy industry to permanently overtake the fossil fuel industry. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency conveys how coal energy generation dropped by 40 percent between 2019 and 2020 (Niller, 2020). While pain was originally predicted for the coal industry prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, nobody in the coal industry predicated a decline of this magnitude. Even with President Trump’s fossil fuel agenda, the coal industry has continued to struggle more than ever.
Stephen Stetson, who is a representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, says that wind, solar, and hydropower have produced more energy than coal in the U.S. for every day of 2020. Over the past decade, studies from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency have shown that the cost of developing a wind farm has dropped by 40 percent, while the cost of developing a solar farm has fallen by roughly 80 percent (Niller, 2020). The development of larger and more efficient wind turbines as well as cheap solar panels from China have driven the overall cost of renewable energy to historically low prices. On the other hand, the cost of generating electricity from coal has not declined. In fact, in many parts of the country, the cost of coal-generated electricity has been on the rise.
It’s clear that many policy makers in Great Britain have been working to make coal a relic of the past. One of the key turning points that critically damaged the British coal industry was the passing of a 2013 law that introduced what has become known as a carbon price support. This price support meant that fossil fuel companies would have to pay an additional tax to generate electricity. This single initiative, which was heavily lobbied against by the World Coal Association, dramatically weakened the economics for the coal industry. The year that a price was put on carbon was the year that the coal industry really started to decline. Since then, the growth of renewables has only been accelerating. Once fully constructed, the operational pricing of renewable energy comes in at a fraction of the cost to produce electricity from coal.
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Storrow, B. (2020). “Can Coal Survive the Coronavirus?” Scientific American.
Thomas, N. (2020). “Britain breaks fresh coal power record as renewable use grows.” Financial Times.
Thomas, N., et al. (2019). “How Britain ended its coal addiction.” Financial Times.
Wade, w., et al. (2020). “COVID has everyone ditching coal quicker — except Asia.” Watertown Daily Times and Northern New York Newspapers.