Growth in Renewables Continues Despite Drop in UK Power Generation

Renewable energy sources increased their share of the UK’s electricity supply in 2018, with new wind farms and biomass plants helping renewables contribute a record 33% of the country’s power in the past year. Coal-fired units, meanwhile, saw a 25% drop in their output, with coal providing about 5% of the country’s total generation.

The UK has said it wants to phase out all coal generation by 2025.

An analysis by Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate science and energy policy group that advises the government, in a report released Jan. 3 noted that the amount of electricity produced in the UK last year was at its lowest level since 1994, despite sustained population growth during the period, including an increase of 6 million people since 2005. Analysts said the reduced need for power is due to increasingly efficient use of energy and the country’s changing economy.

Carbon Brief’s report noted 335 TWh were generated by UK power plants last year, a drop of about 1% from 2017. Output has fallen about 16% since 2005, which the report noted would be the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hinkley Point C nuclear power stations. The Hinkley Point project is a 3,200-MW plant with two EPR reactors being built in Somerset, England. The government gave the project a green light in 2016 after years of debate about its costs and other issues. The project is now estimated to cost about $25 billion, with an online date of sometime in 2025.

Carbon Brief’s analysis is based on figures from BM Reports, Sheffield Solar, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Carbon Brief’s report last year showed that for the first time more than half of the UK’s power generation was low-carbon.

Large Increase in Renewables

The jump in renewable energy output in 2018, which includes biomass, hydropower, solar, and wind, was up from 29% a year ago, and has grown significantly after accounting for just 6.7% of the country’s power generation supply in 2009.

Simon Evans, policy editor at Carbon Brief, told The Guardian newspaper, “It could be a combination of more efficient appliances, energy-saving lightbulbs and, more recently, LEDs. Then there’s supermarkets installing better fridges, industry using more efficient pumps. Across all of those businesses, efficiency will have been going up. And of course there’s the changing nature of industry in the UK.”

New biomass plants in the country included the conversion of a coal unit at the massive Drax power station in Yorkshire, and the conversion of a former coal plant in Northumberland.

The report showed low-carbon energy supplies accounted for a record 53% of the country’s power generation in 2018, helped by strong growth for wind power, whose output rose 16% year-over-year, to produce 58 TWh—about 3.5 times the amount of output from coal, which produced 17 TWh.

Carbon Brief’s data charts the UK’s power supply over the past century. Most recently, it shows generation fell almost every year between 2008 and 2014, remained stable between 2015 and 2017, and began falling again last year. Previous research by the group has found that more energy-efficient appliances helped save the average UK household £290 a year (about $365) between 2008 and 2017.

Natural gas provides most of the UK’s power, about 132 TWh in 2018 according to the report, or just below a 40% share of total generation. Gas-fired power output has risen almost 38% over the past five years, though higher gas prices led to a 3.5% year-over-year decline in 2018.

The report showed nuclear power produced 19.4% of the UK’s electricity in 2018, with wind power at 17.4% and biomass at 10.7%. Coal’s 5.1% share of power output remains just ahead of solar, at 3.8%, and hydro, at 1.5%.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor. (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).