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The future is coming!

Blog by Lesley Rudd

Coming from Newcastle I am very aware of the importance of coal and the part it played in powering this country and driving the Industrial Revolution.

 ‘Taking coal to Newcastle’   is an idiom describing a pointless action which stems from the fact that the economy of Newcastle was heavily dependent on the distribution and sale of coal. By the time of the first known recording of the phrase in 1538, 15,000 tonnes of coal were being exported annually from the area. At its peak, the British coal industry employed over a million men, and was one of the most important industries in the UK.  Growing up in Newcastle gave me great respect for the coal mining industry, the hard working people that worked within in and the communities that supported it.

Nevertheless, I celebrate the watershed moment that happened on Friday 21st April 2017 – when Britain went a full 24 hours without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.  Friday marked the first 24-hour coal-free period since the first large coal-fired generator opened in London in 1882. I’m not quite old enough to remember that but I do remember that back in the 1970’s coal was the life blood of our country and without it the economy would have come to a standstill.  A day without using coal to generate electricity was unthinkable. We have come a long way since then!

My childhood in Newcastle has been followed by a working life in the energy industry and trips to offshore oil rigs further cemented my respect for workers in the energy industry. However as my career progressed I became increasingly aware of global warming and the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions. From the late 1980s, there was increased awareness of the environmental cost associated with burning coal.  Eventually legislation like the Climate Change Act in 2008 established the framework to develop a targeted and economically-credible plan to reduce current and future emissions and committed the government to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. In addition the UK also implemented renewables targets —to source 15% of all energy and 10% of transport fuels from renewables by 2020—which originated in the EU’s 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.

Over the years the UK has used less coal to generate electricity as renewable sources have developed and there were some (shorter) coal-free periods in 2016, as renewables played an increasing role in the power mix. The longest continuous period until now had been 19 hours – first achieved on a weekend last May, and matched on Thursday. This was followed on Friday by the first continuous 24-hour coal-free period for Britain since use of the fossil fuel began.

Our country has a proud history and coal is very much a part of that, but the future is energy efficiency, low carbon and renewables.  Where coal is still used in heating we should encourage smokeless coal products and other innovations to improve environmental performance. At a time when political parties are campaigning for an election and there is focus on the economy, let us remember how we have successfully transitioned from an economy based on coal and urge all parties to recognise the importance of transforming further to a cleaner greener economy.

Removing coal from our energy mix – even for a day – is worth celebrating, but we have made much less progress on decarbonising buildings and heating.  Our journey to a low carbon economy and a healthier environment has begun but any new government must prioritise continuing on that journey, the alternative is not a legacy I want to leave my children.

Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Energy Association

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Monday, April 24th, 2017