Coal is collapsing. The above graph shows how coal use grew up until the 1980’s, then slowly and erratically declined until about 2012, and then plummeted over the last eight years. In 2019 it made up less than 2% of UK electricity supply: in 2020 it will be less than that, and soon it will dwindle to nothing. As of today, 13th May 2020, the UK has gone for 33 days without using any coal to generate electricity, for the first time since the 1880’s. Countries across Europe are permanently shutting down their last coal fired power stations. Belgium was the first to do so, in 2016, followed last month by Austria, then days later, Sweden. Over the next few years many countries, including UK, will permanently shut their last coal fired power stations.
A few years ago there was a lot of nonsense talked about Peak Oil and how demand would outstrip supply causing energy prices to skyrocket. Energy prices have been falling for years, and this process is made more acute by the Covid 19 pandemic further suppressing demand. Oil prices actually went negative recently, for the first time ever, with people being paid to take it from the overflowing oil field facilities.
As the above graph shows UK electricity demand has been falling for nearly two decades, as is the case in many mature economies. Low prices, coupled with the disinvestment campaign, have made it increasingly hard for coal companies to expand, even in Australia which historically had a very profitable coal sector. Most fossil fuel extraction is now unprofitable.
Renewables are on the rise. Prices are falling and performance is improving. Storage and interconnection technologies are making it ever cheaper and easier to rely on renewables for all our electricity needs. As heating and transportation systems are electrified electricity demand will rise, but this rise can be dealt with in a 100% renewables scenario.
As countries emerge from the Covid 19 pandemic they will need to make choices about the kind of future they want. Old coal, oil and other obsolete sectors of the economy will be lobbying for bailouts. We can have clean air, better health, less road accidents, more social justice and a whole raft of other benefits by opting for a Green New Deal. At the heart of any Green New Deal is the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Of course we need huge other changes to create a more socially just and less polluting future, but let’s celebrate the progress that has been made. One indicator is our individual carbon emissions stemming from electricity use. In UK these have fallen from 2.6 tonnes per person in 2010 to below one tonne in 2019. This is very good news and has been due to the decline in coal, made possible by falling demand and the rise of renewables.