For the first time in the UK, renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels which is an estimated total of 29.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) during the three months of July, August and September, compared to just 29.1TWh from fossil fuels, the analysis shows.
Over the past decade, during the transformation of the UK’s electricity system and since the first station for public electricity generation in the UK opened in 1882, it is the first-ever quarter of renewables that outpaced fossil fuels although the UK remains far off track regarding the currently adopted target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Transformative Decade of Electricity Generation
Around three-quarters of the total demand in UK or 288 TWh generated from fossil fuels accounting for more than 10 times as much electricity as the 26 TWh that came from renewables. The electricity generation from renewable sources has quadrupled since then, resulting in a considerable fall in demand for fossil fuels.
Since 2010, the electricity generation from fossil fuels has halved from 288 TWh down to 142 TWh in the most recent one year period.
Nearly 39 percent of UK’s electricity generation in the third quarter of 2019 was from coal, oil, and gas, which includes 38% from gas and less than 1 percent from coal and oil combined.
The renewables contributed another 40% including 20% from wind, 12%from biomass, 6% from solar and rest mostly from nuclear, generating 19% of the total electricity.
During summer 2019, National Grid predicted that zero-carbon sources of electricity such as wind, solar, hydro and nuclear would generate more electricity compared to fossil fuels and the forecast is in line till the third quarter of the year.
New Generation Capacity
The major reason for rising renewable generation is new offshore wind farms that started operation in 2018, adding more than 2,100MW of offshore capacity. In October world’s largest offshore wind farm, the 1,200-megawatt (MW) Hornsea One project was completed. The 588MW Beatrice offshore wind farm was completed in Q2 of this year. Besides, the 714MW East Anglia One project that started generating electricity this year and will be completed in 2020.
The offshore wind capacity will increase from 8,500MW now to around 20,000MW by the mid-2020s under government contracts which along with upcoming projects aiming for at least 30,000MW of offshore wind capacity by 2030.
The 420MW Lynemouth biomass plant in Northumberland last year along with other hundreds of megawatts of new onshore wind and solar farms are also the contributors to the recent increase in renewable generation.
The wood pellets burnt at Lynemouth and the Drax plant in Yorkshire are primarily “plant biomass” that produce around two-thirds of UK’s electricity generated from biomass and rest generated from landfill gas, sewage gas or anaerobic digestion based small sites.
Generation of electricity from biomass is not zero-carbon, and in some circumstances, emissions level could be even higher compared to fossil fuels. The Committee on Climate Change says that once existing subsidy contracts for Drax and Lynemouth expire in 2027, the UK should “move away” from large-scale biomass power plants. As per CCC, the world’s limited supply of biomass feedstock must be used where it is necessary like carbon sequestration and hard-to-abate sectors having lesser alternatives.
The coal plants in the UK are rapidly closing down before 2025 deadline for planned phase-out of unabated burning of the fuel as it is becoming increasingly uneconomic to run these ageing power stations because of the soaring CO2 prices, market forces and stringent pollution rules. Only four will remain by March 2020.
The UK is unlikely to meet its goal of cutting carbon to net-zero by 2050, and the progress in the electricity sector needs to be matched by the reductions in other parts of the UK economy including heating and transport.
Generation in Consecutive Months
September 2018 was the first-ever whole month when renewables had beaten fossil fuels and then again in March 2019. According to Carbon Brief analysis, in the first three quarters of 2019, renewables outpaced fossil fuels on 103 of the 273 individual days which is higher than one-third of the days in the year so far and the third quarter of 2019, includes 40 of the 91 days. Similarly, there were 107 such days in 2018, only 58 such days in 2017, just 16 in 2016 and 12 in 2015. It was 11 April 2015, the first-ever day when UK renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels.
The Applied Methodology
The figures in the article have been incorporated from Carbon Brief analysis of data from BEIS Energy Trends chapter 5 and chapter 6, and also from BM Reports. The figures from BM Reports reflect electricity supplied to the grid in Great Britain only and are adjusted for the inclusion of Northern Ireland.
The reasons for this difference may be because the company analyzed for Great Britain only, whereas Carbon Brief’s analysis covers the UK overall. Second, as per its reports, the electricity “supplied” in the country includes imports, whereas Carbon Brief estimates the electricity “generated” amount within the UK only. Third, while Carbon Brief’s analysis is aligned with the quarterly BEIS Energy Trends data for electricity generation by design, EnAppSys uses an approach of their own.