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Simon Evans

22.12.2016 | 4:01pm
CoalTwo charts show how UK coal use is collapsing
COAL | December 22. 2016. 16:01
Two charts show how UK coal use is collapsing

Update 27/4/17 – We updated the charts, below, with the latest data. Since this piece was first published, Carbon Brief analysis has shown that the UK generated more electricity from wind than from coal in 2016, while a 52% fall in coal use contributed to another steep fall in UK CO2 emissions. More recently, on 21 April, the UK passed the first full 24 hours without burning coal for electricity since the 1880s.

The amount of coal burned in the UK is falling rapidly, new government data shows.

The collapse has been particularly dramatic in the power sector, where monthly coal use fell 70-80% in 2016, compared to a year earlier. The UK’s top-up carbon tax, rising output from renewables and the closure of several coal-fired power stations are behind this trend.

Carbon Brief has plotted two charts to illustrate what’s going on, using new data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Coal use by sector

Between 1995 and 2005, the UK’s annual demand for coal was roughly constant, though there were seasonal ups and downs (see below). Coal-fired power generation then started to fall, as a result of falling electricity demand and cheaper gas.

After around 2011, UK coal use increased on the back of low prices. The European market was flooded by cheap coal after shale gas started to displace coal demand in the US. However, this UK coal renaissance was short-lived, and coal demand has been falling rapidly since 2013.

UK monthly coal use by sector between 1995 and February 2017. Hover over the chart for more information. You can show or hide each series using the legend and zoom in by dragging an area with your mouse. Source: Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Energy Trends section two. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Month by month coal use

You can see the seasonal trend in coal use more clearly in the chart, below. As temperatures rise through spring and summer, electricity demand falls and power stations burn less coal. Each autumn, this trend is reversed as cooler temperatures set in.

You can also see how unusual coal use has been in 2015, 2016 and 2017, show by the red lines in the chart, below. What’s even more remarkable about this collapse is that UK coal us was already at historic lows, having fallen to its lowest level since the industrial revolution by 2014.

UK monthly coal use between 1995 and February 2017. Source: Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Energy Trends section two. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Coal power output hit zero for the first time in more than 150 years in March 2016. It was so low that output between April and September 2016 was less than that from the UK’s solar panels. In 2017, this downwards trend has continued, with coal generation hitting zero again. In April 2017 to date, coal has supplied around 2% of UK electricity, down from around 45% in April 2012.

The UK’s top-up carbon tax, the carbon price floor, doubled in April 2015. Three of the UK’s remaining coal plants then closed a year later, in spring 2016. The UK plans to close all unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025.

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