The country now generates more of its electricity from renewables
THOMAS EDISON may be best remembered for his incandescent light bulb, but the American inventor also opened the world’s first coal-fired generator, the Edison Electric Light Station, in London in 1882. Though the project was short-lived—the plant was shut less than five years after it opened—it helped cement Britain’s love affair with coal. By the turn of the century, the country was burning 150m tonnes of the stuff every year; in 1950 coal provided 97% of all electricity.
These days Britain is becoming ever less dependent on the fuel. In 2017 it went a day without coal power for the first time since the Industrial Revolution; in May it managed an entire fortnight. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, a climate-news website, in the third quarter of this year renewables supplied more electricity to British homes and businesses than fossil fuels for the first time in history. Indeed, government statistics show that just 2% of Britain’s power supply now comes from coal. This is largely the result of switching to natural gas, another fossil fuel which accounts for some 40% of electricity generation. But more than 30% also came from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass (see left-hand chart).
Yet for all the progress of recent years, climate-change campaigners fret it may be too little, too late. Britain still lags behind many of its European neighbours (see right-hand chart). Denmark and Portugal already get more than half of their electricity from renewable sources. Last year Denmark’s wind farms generated a greater share of the country’s electricity than all renewables did in Britain. Spain recently surpassed 40% renewable electricity and, with the most comprehensive green energy plan in the European Union, intends to reach 100% by 2050.
The British government aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to almost zero by 2050 by, among other things, phasing out fossil fuels, switching to electric cars and capturing CO2 and storing it underground. It is an ambitious target, but one that the father of electricity might have endorsed. “We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property,” Edison mused in 1910. “You see, we should utilise natural forces and thus get all of our power,” he said, referring to the sun, winds and tides. His real lightbulb moment, perhaps.