In 1698, the English engineer Thomas Savery patented a coal-fuelled steam engine, and in doing so lit the long fuse of the industrial revolution. Over the next 200 years, coal became the dominant source of power in Britain, outstripping wind, water and labour. In 1882, the world’s first coal-fired electric power plant was opened — and Britain has been emitting greenhouse gases ever since. Is it time we got smarter?
In the past 150 years, in becoming wiser to its environmental drawbacks, we’ve slowly fallen out of love with coal. In order to reduce our carbon emissions, the UK has focused on generating more of its energy from renewable sources. But these too have their challenges. Many are weather-dependent — meaning they need to be supported by fossil fuels during periods of intermittent supply.