For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, Britain is obtaining more power through clean electricity from zero-carbon sources than fossil fuels.
Clean Electricity is Overtaking Fossil Fuels in Britain
The clean electricity milestone has been passed for the first five months of 2019.
National Grid says clean energy has nudged ahead with 48% of generation, against 47% for coal and gas. The rest is biomass burning. The transformation reflects the precipitous decline of coal energy with a boom from wind and solar. The National Grid says that in the past decade, coal generation has plunged from 30% to 3%.
Meanwhile, wind power shot up from 1% to 19%. Mini-milestones were passed along the way. In May, for instance, Britain clocked up its first coal-free fortnight. Britain simultaneously generated record levels of solar power for two consecutive days.
Why does reduced burning of fossil fuels matter?
The shift is being driven by the need to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases that are over-heating the climate. The clean electricity sector was seen as the easiest place to start.
John Pettigrew, CEO of National Grid, told BBC News: “Over the last 10 years there has been real progress in de-carbonisation of the energy system. However, 2019 is going to be a key turning point for reducing reliance on fossil fuels for energy. It’s the first time since the Industrial Revolution that more clean electricity has been produced from zero and low-carbon sources rather than fossil fuels. It’s tremendously exciting because it’s such a tipping point.”
The National Grid says it is confident to make predictions for Britain’s whole year power generation based on figures so far and on historical patterns. In years to come, more energy storage will be needed as the share of wind power and solar energy swells further.
Can electric cars help with clean electricity supplies?
Mr Pettigrew told us some of the renewable energy generated when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining will be stored in the batteries of people’s electric cars for use later. The electric cars charging systems will be reversed so their batteries can feed electricity back to the grid when demand peaks. This may happen in situations such as when people are cooking supper.
In John Pettigrew’s words: “One of key attributes of electric cars is they have a battery and therefore they can be used as a source of energy on to the network. We could aggregate all the electric cars and use that clean electricity to support the grid when it’s needed. It’s going to be a really effective tool for us to keep costs down.”
Estimates show this vehicle to grid technology (V2G) could solve 10-15% of the UK’s demand for storage. However, it’s hard to be confident about projections because autonomous vehicles may disrupt patterns of electric cars usage and ownership.
How much energy will we buy from Europe?
Another way of filling in the gaps in energy when the wind’s not blowing is by trading with continental neighbours. The National Grid expects that giant cables from continental Europe will soon supply enough to power eight million homes. The utility firm says 63% of electricity imported through interconnectors this year has come from zero-carbon sources. Much of this is from French nuclear power.
The zero-carbon share should increase to 90% by the 2030s as the UK trades more electricity with Norway’s vast hydropower system. There’s still major uncertainty about low-carbon energy though. This is caused due to lack of clarity over nuclear power and increased expected demand from motorists.
Mr Pettigrew joined the chorus of critics warning government that the progress of electric cars is too slow. He is urging much more effort is put to decarbonise heat.
Has technology cracked the climate problem?
The veteran energy analyst Tom Burke from e3g told BBC News:
“Today’s landmark is a real tribute to technologists. We have cracked the technical problems of dealing with climate change. The problems we face are political. As we move towards Net Zero (carbon emissions), jobs will be lost in fossil fuels industries and created in low-carbon industries. The government has blown hot and cold on climate policies. It has shown no sign of thinking about managing the politics of this.”
A government White Paper on energy is due soon.
It is imperative all designers and constructors remove the burning of fossil fuels on their sites. This will enable clean energy to be used in the built environment without releasing further carbon.
At SpaceShapers we concentrate on removing any gas or wood burning to produce energy in our buildings. We focus on 100% electricity generation with reduced energy for operation and renewables wherever possible.