Britain Poised to Go Full Day Without Burning Coal for Electricity

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

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Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — If all goes according to plan, Friday will be the first full day since the height of the Industrial Revolution that Britain will not burn coal to generate electricity, a development that officials and climate change activists were already celebrating as a watershed moment.

The accomplishment will not become official until just before 11 p.m., when the 24-hour period ends, but executives in the National Grid control room said on Twitter that they expected it to be achieved: “It looks likely that today will be the first ever working day in Britain without #coal since the industrial revolution!”

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, is thought never to have gone without power from coal for a whole working day.

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A train carried visitors to Hollycombe, a museum of steam-powered attractions, in Liphook, England, last week.

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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…

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