Last week Britain set a new record for coal-free energy. For the first time since the 1880’s we went 3 full days without generating any power from burning coal.
The environmental effects of coal
Cheap, reliable, and convenient – you can see why coal took off the way that it did. At present, coal-fuelled power plants provide 37% of global electricity, but in the UK a concerted effort is being made to cut back.
There are a large number of reasons that coal generated energy is a bad idea, most of which have been known for years.
- Burning coal creates vast amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming and causing acid rain
- Chemicals harmful to humans, such as mercury and arsenic, are released during the process. These elements can have serious effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems.
- It’s a finite resource. Although it’s naturally occuring, the time and processes involved in the formation of coal relegate it to fossil-fuel status.
- Just like nuclear energy generation, it releases huge amounts of radiation into the environment. This has impacts for the health of humans, other animals, and plants.
- During energy production, coal power plants are also draining one of the world’s most precious resources – water.
- It devastates the surrounding environment.
- It is not a safe way to harness energy – thousands of people have died in coal mining accidents.
Closing down coal plants by 2025
The plan calls for big changes. By 2023 UK coal use will be heavily restricted, with complete closure by 2025. It’s already started affecting us – last year coal accounted for less than 7% of our power mix, and last week we went a record-setting 3 days without coal power.
Replacing coal energy
Although we’re cutting down significantly on our coal consumption, closing down all the coal plants still leaves the problem of how to generate enough energy for the UK. At the moment we’re in a bit of a pickle as a country – we’re using more energy than we’re making and having to buy in more from other countries. The unseasonably bad weather this spring only served to highlight these issues.
Amber Rudd, the UK’s former Energy Secretary, says that investment in gas will provide the UK with a more secure long-term energy supply than coal, providing a “new energy infrastructure, fit for the 21st century”. Rudd is definitely a big proponent of gas, but other people are more sceptical.
Environmental groups are concerned that replacing carbon-heavy coal burning with another fossil fuel – gas – is a mistake for the economy as well as the environment. Not only will replacing one harmful fuel source for another have continued negative impacts for the environment, but it may not even be a good idea financially. Renewable energies require no fuel costs and will never become obsolete when finite resources dwindle.
For now, the UK is not ready to run off renewables alone, but cutting down on our coal use and closing the remaining plants is a huge step in the right direction.