UK grid passes latest clean power milestone, with no immediate end in sight to coal-free run
At midnight last night the UK grid completed two consecutive months without any coal power, extending the longest period the country has operated without a coal-fired power plant since the Industrial Revolution past another milestone.
As of 6am this morning, the coal-free run stood at 61 days and 6 hours.
The record-breaking run has been delivered in part thanks to the coronavirus lockdown, which led to lower than expected power demand throughout the Spring. But the latest coal-free record builds on a trend that has seen the grid operate for long periods with little or no coal power in recent years, as renewables and storage capacity has surged and coal plants have been shuttered.
Jess Ralston, analyst at think tank the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said the latest record-breaking coal-free run highlighted "the fact that the fuel is simply not needed in a modern energy system".
"At the same time, the surge in renewable generation and extensive plans to expand the nation's fleet of cheap and clean energy sources show that there will only be one direction from here," she added. "Recent tests of an increasingly flexible energy system during sunny bank holidays in lockdown, all of which have been dealt with without issue, show that the grid is ready to move quicker than many thought possible. The question is now whether policymakers keep pace with this to encourage further investment into clean energy sources."
The latest coal-free run could continue for some time yet and over the course of the year coal is expected to provide only a fraction of the grid's power, following the closure of two further coal power plants this year.
With wind and solar power performing strongly, new data from Carbon Brief this week suggested that to date renewables have provided more power than fossil fuels to the grid this year.
Renewables are thought to have been responsible for 37 per cent of electricity supplied to the network compared to 35 per cent for coal and gas. Nuclear accounted for around 18 per cent and imports around 10 per cent, according to the website.
"So far this year renewables have generated more electricity than fossil fuels and that's never happened before," Carbon Brief's Dr Simon Evans told the BBC. "With gas also in decline, there's a real chance that renewables will overtake fossil fuels in 2020 as a whole."
The dominance of renewables and the decline of coal underlines a remarkable transformation to the UK's grid in recent years. Just a decade ago coal provided over 40 per cent of the UK's power and was one of the country's main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Since then a combination of carbon pricing policies and plummeting renewables costs has seen coal power plants sidelined. There are now only three plants left in the country and the government remains on track to ensure they have all closed by 2025 at the latest.
Attention is now turning to how to further boost the UK's clean power capacity and start to slash the use of gas power in pursuit of the country's target to become a net zero emission economy by 2050.
Calls are growing for the government to deliver more clean power auctions as part of its imminent green recovery package, so as to accelerate the roll out of low cost renewables projects.
Meanwhile, Ministers are also facing calls to provide more clarity on their nuclear development plans, fast track the development of energy storage and smart grid systems that can minimise the risk of disruption to grids as their reliance on variable sources of renewable power increases further, and step up investment in energy efficiency upgrades.
"A focus on new technology such as batteries as the country recovers from the current economic shock will only accelerate these long term trends [towards a clean power system], and will see us move past the end of coal and begin to look to the end of reliance on other fossil fuels," said Ralston.
In related news, a new YouGov survey commissioned by investment fund GLIL Infrastructure revealed that renewable energy infrastructure is seen as the top priority by the British public.
The survey of over 2,000 people saw 62 per cent describe investment in renewable energy infrastructure as 'very important', making it comfortably the top priority ahead of utilities, rail, energy more broadly, and roads.
In contrast, respondents were least likely to consider investment in airports to be very important, with 40 per cent describing investment in airports as either 'not very important' or 'not at all important' and only 14 per cent saying it is 'very important'.
"The UK has extensive infrastructure ambitions and now, even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a strong case for infrastructure investment as the economy looks to get back on track and prepare for the future," said Ted Frith, COO at GLIL Infrastructure. "The current lockdown means that international travel is all but impossible, however the commitment to sustainability and the environment remains firm.
"Although 63 per cent of people think the UK government should pay for infrastructure, the government has other priorities right now, with money rightly being directed to healthcare and supporting businesses and people from across the economy. Perhaps now more than ever before the government should be encouraging the private sector and local government pension schemes to step up and help fill the infrastructure funding gap as part of the nation's recovery."
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