'Cleanest year on record': Zero-carbon electricity surpassed fossil fuel generation in 2019

During the course of 2019, 48.5% of electricity consumed in Britain was generated through zero-carbon methods such as wind, solar and nuclear - compared to 43% for fossil fuels.

Pictured: The Cottam coal power station, which is set to ceased generation in September 2019. Image: EDF

Pictured: The Cottam coal power station, which is set to ceased generation in September 2019. Image: EDF

That is according to new data released this week by National Grid to mark the start of the new year, which attributes the remaining 8.5% of generation to biomass. Both domestically generated electricity and that imported via interconnectors is accounted for in the calculations.

According to the National Grid, the findings make 2019 the first year in which zero-carbon generation outstripped fossil fuels for the first time.

Indeed, Britain’s record for coal-free electricity generation was broken numerous times throughout the course of the year. Almost 92 consecutive hours of coal-free generation were recorded over the long Easter weekend in April. Then, on 8 May, National Grid announced that the UK had completed its first week of coal-free generation since before the industrial revolution. That record was broken again in later May with almost two weeks without coal generation recorded.

In total, there were 600 hours of coal-free generation in Britain during May.

National Grid’s chief executive John Pettigrew said the publication of the new data builds on these successes.

“As we enter a new decade, this truly is a historic moment and an opportunity to reflect on how much has been achieved,” he said.

“At National Grid, we know we have a critical role in the acceleration towards a cleaner future and are committed to playing our part in delivering a safe and secure energy system that works for all.”

Low-carbon transition

Before the UK updated its legally binding long-term emissions target to net-zero last year, the Government had been targeting an 80% reduction against 1990 levels by mid-century.

In 1990, the National Grid calculated that fossil fuels accounted for more than three-quarters (75.5%) of Britain’s annual electricity consumption. In comparison, zero-carbon sources accounted for less than one-quarter (24.4%), and biomass was absent from the mix altogether.

Since then, a combination of policy interventions, technology improvements and increased investment – against a backdrop of rapidly strengthening climate science – has changed the nation’s energy mix considerably.

Looking to the future of zero-carbon electricity in the UK, the Government is working to phase out domestic coal generation entirely by 2025. But with most of the nation’s nuclear power plants earmarked for closure, and without strong policy for new nuclear, onshore wind or large-scale energy storage, concerns around the nation’s ability to deliver energy security throughout the net-zero transition persist.

However, many businesses are investing heavily in zero-carbon energy and supporting infrastructure. National Grid itself has earmarked almost £1bn for the transition to net-zero, most of which will be used to help the electricity system operator (ESO) to operate a net-zero carbon electricity system by 2025 and to decarbonise heat within the gas transmission network. Similarly, the likes of SSE, Scottish Power and Orsted all have ambitious plans to expand zero-carbon generation for the UK.

In order for the UK to reach its net-zero target, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) believes that domestic renewable energy generation must quadruple by 2050, against a 2017 baseline. This move, the advisory body recommends, must be complemented by the uptake of energy storage and carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale. 

Sarah George


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