Last Friday Britain went a full day without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since the 1880s, in what the National Grid called a “watershed” moment. Considering that the next day was Earth Day, it couldn’t have come at a better time, as those involved continue to look towards renewable energies, and away from coal, which has powered society for so long.
The decline in reliance on coal is nothing new – the government plans to phase out Britain’s last plants by 2025 in order to cut carbon emissions – but Friday is thought to be the first time the nation has not used coal to generate electricity since the world’s first centralised public coal-fired generator opened in 1882, at Holborn Viaduct in London.
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Since 1882, the transition away from coal has been slow but continuous. As early as 1956 The Clean Air Act was introduced to reduce air pollution. It included the establishment of smokeless zones, provided subsidies to householders to switch to smokeless fuels for heating, and saw coal-burning power stations moved out of cities.
By the 70’s homes were increasingly being heated by natural gas. Ten years later Nuclear power was responsible for around 25% of electricity generation, and by the 90’s natural gas use had grown to around 30% of electricity generation. More recently, in 2015 renewables had accounted for 25% of power supply, and in 2016 the Government said it wanted Britain’s last coal power plants to close by 2025.
Despite this progress however, Fridays ‘watershed moment’ wasn’t a planned milestone. Rather the national grid’s recordings simply showed the period for which coal-fired plants had been offline, in the same way it showed that about half of British energy on the day came from natural gas, with around a quarter from nuclear plants. Other shorter coal-free periods had occurred in 2016.
A much more deliberate comment on the current use of renewable energy, however, was the series of science marches that took place in more than six hundred cities around the world, the following day, on Earth Day.
Like the move to replace coal, Earth day began decades ago but took significant steps last weekend. Denis Hayes, now 72, was the man tasked with organising the first Earth day in 1970, and has explained that the event was organised to tell the people involved that ‘you’ve really got something in common and this should be one big movement where we’re supportive of one another.’ Science is what those involved had in common then, and added to it now is perhaps the fear that science is being threatened, or at least ignored.
Many of those who attended the science marches on Earth Day did so motivated by a need to stand up to policies introduced by President Trump, with fears as to how these policies will affect the environment central to their grievances. Since entering the white house Mr Trump has made Myron Ebell, a notorious climate change denier, his Chief Environmental advisor, and also announced that any studies or data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public.
As such, many protestors at the march carried signs and spoke messages such as ‘real facts matter’. At the main march in Washington, Mustafa Ali, the ex-head of the environmental justice program at the EPA, said: ‘Today, we stand against an administration that places profits over people and tells us that science isn’t real.’
Yet as a whole the march tended to concentrate on science rather than becoming a political rally, and as such, perhaps the most dominant message was the need to look after planet earth, with one of the most repeated statistics being that 97% of scientists agree that humans are responsible for climate change.
The history of the coal industry shows that there’s no doubt this change has been coming, and although a decade ago a day without coal would have seemed impossible, in the current era of change, ten years from now, it will be much closer to normal. The Science marches show that there is a public desire to ensure this happen.
With these changes continuing, South West College continues to promote renewable energy and passive housing, particularly through the CREST centre in Enniskillen. Now, the SEUPB has announced a funding offer of €5.8 million from the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme to South West College for the ‘Renewable Engine’ project, which will create a new Research & Innovation focused ‘super cluster’.
This project will focus on the disciplines of advanced manufacturing and renewable energy to help SMEs become more ‘innovation active’ and competitive and upon completion it aims to generate 57 years’ worth of research developed at PhD level and above.
Recent events have shown that renewable energy continues to develop and is being supported as it does so, and as ever South West College is endeavouring to be part of the change.