Ending Britain’s reliance on coal would be a seismic change, but it might rely on links with the EU electricity network

Nick Cullen

When historians come to look back at the UK during the decade from 2010 they will undoubtedly make comparisons with other periods of seismic change. The last few years have been ‘history in the making’ as the direction and outlook of the four nations has abruptly changed.

This present decade will be akin to 1066 and all that a date that marks an equally abrupt change in perspective and direction, when a Germanic/Danish nation with a Scandinavian outlook turned through 90 degrees and became entwined with the western Atlantic European countries. Another example might be the period after the Suez crisis in 1956, when Britain finally realised that the empire was no more and the Second World War had robbed it of its global power.

Both these changes followed tumultuous events.

The current post-financial crisis period has seen the UK’s domestic union surviving, while our union with the EU is set to dissolve. This has set in motion forces that will change the culture and outlook of the UK, hopefully in a positive way.

These political changes might well mask one small event that signals an equally profound change.

Coal was literally the energy behind the Industrial Revolution and the accumulated wealth of the UK

On Friday 21st April 2017, the UK went 24 hours without burning coal to generate power for the national electricity network. This is the first time in a 130 years that this has happened and is a significant milestone in the UK – marking if not the end, at least the beginning of the end (sorry to get all Churchillian) of Britain’s reliance on coal.

Coal was literally the energy behind the Industrial Revolution and the accumulated wealth of the UK. In 1956 the UK consumed 220 million tonnes of coal, last year we used just 18 million tonnes and by 2025 the UK will have no coal fired power stations left.

Be in no doubt that moving away from coal is the right thing to do, but also recognise that the UK is paying a price in the form of higher electricity prices and a reduction in our industrial competiveness. Our future energy needs will be met from a combination of expensive but reliable nuclear, expensive renewable energy with battery storage and cheaper but still polluting gas turbines, providing a quick response intermittent supply. There is of course one other key supply, the high voltage links forming part of the EU electricity network.

It will be interesting to see how these European links work post-Brexit and whether the economic benefits to both parties can enable the pan European network to develop as planned. Perhaps the mere fact that this is of no interest to the general public and certainly below the radar of most mainstream journalists in both the UK and the EU, the negotiators will be able to quietly agree continuation of the status quo – if such a thing is possible.

Nick Cullen is a partner at Hoare Lea