How green is Bri­tain’s record on re­new­able en­ergy sup­ply?

The Observer - - BUSINESS -

As one of the UK’s re­new­able en­ergy chiefs has pointed out, elec­tric cars won’t tackle cli­mate change if they run off fos­sil fu­els. Matthew Wright, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Dong En­ergy UK, said that al­though plug-in cars could cut lo­cal air pol­lu­tion, it would be a “pyrrhic vic­tory” if they in­creased green­house gases from coal and gas power sta­tions.

“The fit be­tween re­new­able en­ergy and elec­tric is a nat­u­ral [one],” he ar­gued. E.ON, one of the big-six en­ergy sup­pli­ers, agrees: its ded­i­cated new elec­tric car tar­iff is sup­plied with 100% re­new­able power.

Put sim­ply, the greener the elec­tric­ity mix, the greener your elec­tric car. To­day, around half of power gen­er­ated in the UK comes from low-car­bon sources. Here’s how that breaks down, and how it might look in the fu­ture.

Wind

Nearly a third of the UK’s elec­tric­ity be­tween April and June was gen­er­ated from re­new­able sources – a new record, and up a quar­ter on the same pe­riod last year. The mile­stone was driven in large part by the grow­ing num­ber of wind­farms on land and around the UK’s coast. It also helped that wind speeds were rel­a­tively high and over­all elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion was lower than nor­mal.

The records have con­tin­ued into au­tumn. Last Sun­day night was the per­fect time to plug in a car, as the car­bon emis­sions from power gen­er­a­tion were at their low­est level ever, be­cause of wind­farms.

Off­shore wind­farms have been mak­ing head­lines as well as power, se­cur­ing record low lev­els of state sup­port in a gov­ern­ment auc­tion last month. Three ma­jor off­shore farms will be built in the early 2020s for a sub­sidy price well below nu­clear, and half what the tech­nol­ogy cost just a few years ago.

The UK has more off­shore wind power ca­pac­ity than any other coun­try in the world, and is help­ing set records in Europe too. Last Mon­day, Europe gen­er­ated a new high of 263 gi­gawatt hours of power from off­shore tur­bines, 95GWh of which came from the UK.

Some in­dus­try-watch­ers think that off­shore wind­farms, where larger and more ef­fi­cient tur­bines are driv­ing costs down fast, could be­come so cheap that they even­tu­ally out­com­pete their on­shore coun­ter­parts in Bri­tain, too. But for now, those on land still pro­vide 50% more power than those at sea.

So­lar

The num­ber of so­lar pan­els in the UK grew at a dizzy­ing rate be­tween 2011 and 2016, and now pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant source of power in the mid­dle of the day.

So­lar is a large rea­son the na­tional grid went with­out coal power for 24 hours in April, the first time the UK had done with­out the dirty fuel for a day since the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion. For one brief pe­riod on a Fri­day in May, so­lar even eclipsed the UK’s eight nu­clear power sta­tions for elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion.

How­ever, the out­look for the next five years is cloudier. Ex­perts fore­cast the amount of so­lar in­stalled will be a fifth of the ca­pac­ity fit­ted in the past five years.

Nu­clear

Nu­clear power sta­tions usu­ally pro­vide be­tween a fifth and a quar­ter of the UK’s power, tak­ing a 23.6% share dur­ing April and June. EDF, which is build­ing Bri­tain’s first new nu­clear sta­tion in decades at Hink­ley Point in Som­er­set, thinks that by 2035, nu­clear’s share should grow to around a third of UK power sup­ply.

In the French state-owned firm’s vi­sion of the fu­ture, an­other third will come from re­new­ables and the last third from gas. To­gether, EDF sees the three as the best way of achiev­ing re­li­able, af­ford­able and low-car­bon power.

But seven of the UK’s eight ex­ist­ing nu­clear power sta­tions, which be­gan gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity in the 1970s and 1980s, are ex­pected to come off the grid late next decade. That means for atomic power to sup­ply a third of the UK’s needs, Hink­ley Point C will need to be fin­ished on time, and three more plants of a sim­i­lar size will need to be built.

One of those could be by EDF it­self, at Sizewell in Suf­folk, if it can build the re­ac­tors for a sub­sidy price low enough that the gov­ern­ment would agree it.

EDF is also sup­port­ing a Chi­nese nu­clear com­pany, CGN, which is at the start of a four-year process to get reg­u­la­tory ap­proval for a plant at Brad­well, in Es­sex. Other in­ter­na­tional con­sor­tia are hop­ing to build a plant at Wylfa in Wales and Moor­side in Cum­bria.

Biomass

Al­though en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists dis­pute the idea that wood-burn­ing is green at all, it is still of­fi­cially con­sid­ered low-car­bon by the UK and EU. The UK’s big­gest power sta­tion, Drax in North York­shire, has al­ready con­verted three of its six units from coal to biomass, and is ex­plor­ing switch­ing a fourth.

Later this year, an old coal power plant at Lynemouth in Northum­ber­land is also slated to re­open as a biomass power sta­tion. AV

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