Britain is about to pass a significant landmark – at midnight on Wednesday it will have gone two full months without burning coal to generate power.
A decade ago about 40% of the country’s electricity came from coal; coronavirus is part of the story, but far from all.
When Britain went into lockdown, electricity demand plummeted; the National Grid responded by taking power plants off the network.
The four remaining coal-fired plants were among the first to be shut down.
The last coal generator came off the system at midnight on 9 April. No coal has been burnt for electricity since.
The current coal-free period smashes the previous record of 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes which was set in June last year.
The figures apply to Britain only, as Northern Ireland is not on the National Grid.
But it reveals just how dramatic the transformation of our energy system has been in the last decade.
That the country does not need to use the fuel that used to be the backbone of the grid is thanks to a massive investment in renewable energy over the last decade.
Two examples illustrate just how much the UK’s energy networks have changed.
A decade ago just 3% of the country’s electricity came from wind and solar, which many people saw as a costly distraction.
Now the UK has the biggest offshore wind industry in the world, as well as the largest single wind farm, completed off the coast of Yorkshire last year.
At the same time Drax, the country’s biggest power plant, has been taking a different path to renewable energy.
The plant, which is also in Yorkshire, generates 5% of the country’s electricity.
A decade ago, it was the biggest consumer of coal in the UK but has been switching to compressed wood pellets. Drax plans to phase out coal entirely by March next year.
“We here at Drax decided that coal was no longer the future,” explains Will Gardiner, the chief executive of the power group.
“It has been a massive undertaking and then the result of all that is we’ve reduced our CO2 emissions from more than 20 million tonnes a year to almost zero.”
That is a controversial claim. Environmental activists point out that wood actually produces more carbon dioxide per unit of power generated than coal when it is burnt to generate electricity.
They also say it will take many years for the trees in US forests where Drax sources the seven million tonnes of wood pellets it now burns each year to absorb the CO2 the power plant and its wood processing operations produce each year.
And it is not just coal that is being eclipsed by renewables.
So far this year, renewables have generated more power than all fossil fuels put together.
Breaking it down, renewables were responsible for 37% of electricity supplied to the network versus 35% for fossil fuels.
Nuclear accounted for about 18% and imports for the remaining 10% or so, according to figures from the online environmental journal, Carbon Brief.
“So far this year renewables have generated more electricity than fossil fuels and that’s never happened before”, says Dr Simon Evans of Carbon Brief.