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COVID-19 lockdown allows Britain to go coal-free for record two months

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A vessel sails towards a wind farm off the coast of Whitstable on the north Kent coast in England.
A vessel sails towards a wind farm off the coast of Whitstable on the north Kent coast in England.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/David Bebber
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Britain will on Thursday have spent a record two months without generating electricity from coal-power plants.

It's thanks in a large part to the COVID-19 lockdown, which led to a plunge in electricity consumption.

The share of coal in Britain's electrical mix fell to 0% on April 10, according to data from Drax, an electrical power generation company, after the island's coal-powered plants were shut down in response to lower demand for electricity.

As a result, on April 28, Britain — Northern Ireland is not included — set a new record for its longest period of coal-free electricity generation with 438 hours and 10 minutes. A record it has since then smashed.

The country recorded in May its first full coal-free calendar month — 744 straight hours — of electricity generation since the industrial revolution and also reached "record lows for carbon".

Carbon intensity — the amount of carbon generated to produce electricity — fell to a record average of 143 gCO2/kWh. More than a quarter — 28% — of electricity came from renewable sources.

April was also a record-breaking month for solar energy with a solar generation record of 9.68GW set on April 20.

Demand for electricity has fallen since the introduction of a lockdown on March 23 to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, electricity network operator National Grid has explained.

"You might think people staying at home and using more electricity would mean an increased overall demand across the country, but that's not the case," it said in a statement.

"Electricity demand is actually significantly lower than usual, due to a decrease in energy use from commercial and industrial consumers," it added.

Three-quarters of Britain's electrical mix was supplied by coal in 2010 but coal's share stood at just 2.1% last year. Nearly 41% of Britain's electricity generation was supplied by gas in 2019, followed by renewables (36.9%), nuclear (17.4%), oil and other (2.7%) and coal.

Coal power generation was actually up 3% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2020 as two of Britain's oldest coal power stations, which closed on March 31, increased their output to burn through their remaining stockpiles, Drax said.

Britain, which has pledged to remove coal from its electrical mix by 2025 at the latest, has three coal power stations.

Drax has already announced that it would shut one down in March 2021 with the remaining two scheduled to remain available until September 2022.

Total coal use across the Europe Union dropped to just 15% last year, according to The European Power Sector 2019 report by the Sandbag and Agora Energiewende thinktanks.

The report found that for the first time ever, wind and solar combined provided more electricity than coal and that the collapse in the use of the fossil fuel had led to CO2 emissions in Europe's power sector falling by 12%.

It noted that that only Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia had yet to start taking actions to phase out coal from their energy mix.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 80% of Poland's electricity was supplied by coal in 2018.