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For First Time Since 1800s, Britain Goes a Day Without Burning Coal for Electricity

The coal-fired Ferrybridge C power station in Northern England closed last year.

Credit Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — Friday was the first full day since the height of the Industrial Revolution that Britain did not burn coal to generate electricity, a development that officials and climate change activists celebrated as a watershed moment.

The accomplishment became official just before 11 p.m., when the 24-hour period ended.

Coal powered Britain into the industrial age and into the 21st century, contributing greatly to the “pea souper” fogs that were thought for decades to be a natural phenomenon of the British climate.

For many living in the mining towns up and down the country, it was not just the backbone of the economy but a way of life. But the industry has been in decline for some time. The last deep coal mine closed in December 2015, though open cast mining has continued.

Coal-fired power generation contributes heavily to climate change; burning coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas. Reducing the world’s reliance on coal and increasing the use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power have long been part of proposals to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

Now on a path to phase out coal-fired power generation altogether by 2025, Britain, also the home of the first steam engine, is currently closing coal plants and stepping up generation from cleaner natural gas and renewables, like wind and solar.

“Symbolically, this is a milestone,” said Sean Kemp, a spokesman for National Grid, Britain’s power grid operator. “A kind of end of an era.”

The first public coal-fired generator opened at Holborn Viaduct in London in 1882. Since then, the British economy, one of Europe’s largest, was thought to never have gone without power from coal for a whole working day.

A train carried visitors to Hollycombe, a museum of steam-powered attractions, in Liphook, England, last week. Credit Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

There have been shorter coal-free periods before. Last May, for instance, coal generation dropped to zero for the first time, but only for a few hours at a time. On a weekend later that month, National Grid achieved a coal-free stretch of 19 hours, the longest at the time, Mr. Kemp said.

Demand for electricity tends to be lower in the spring, when homes and offices turn off their heating and normally do not yet have a need for air-conditioning. It tends to be particularly low on a Friday and during the Easter holiday period.

But the trend away from coal as a source of electricity is structural, officials say, with coal-free days likely to become more common. Since 2012, two-thirds of Britain’s coal-fired power generating capacity has been shuttered. Some plants have been converted partially to burn biomass, such as wood pellets. Last year, the share of coal in total power generation dropped to 9 percent, down from 23 percent in 2015 and 40 percent in 2012.

Some countries have already left coal behind in power generation. In Switzerland, Belgium and Norway, “every day is a coal-free day,” Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a coal analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris, pointed out.

In the United States, where coal still accounts for about 30 percent of power generation, Vermont and Idaho are the only coal-free states, and California is close behind, he said.

Coal is still used in heavy industry like steel and cement production. But given how important coal was in Britain’s history, Mr. Alvarez described the news on Friday as more evidence of a trend toward “low-carbon electricity.”

“The first day without coal in Britain since the Industrial Revolution marks a watershed in the energy transition,” Hannah Martin, head of energy at Greenpeace U.K., told The Guardian. “The direction of travel is that both in the U.K. and globally we are already moving towards a low carbon economy.”

Meanwhile, in the London Museum of Water & Steam, which has a heritage collection of coal-fired steam engines and railway engines, the operations manager, Edward Fagan, was planning for a future exhibition.

“Coal-fired power generation is very fast becoming a heritage item,” Mr. Fagan said. “One day we’ll have to add a power station to our collection.”

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