UK's coal power spikes amid cold snap, despite 'greenest year on record' for electricity in 2020

Coal and gas have routinely accounted for 60% of electricity generation in Britain over the past week, sparking concerns around the nation's ability to maintain energy security in a low-carbon manner during winter weather conditions.

Pictured: Drax's power station in North Yorkshire, where two coal units will close later this year. Image: Drax/ A.Chadwick

Pictured: Drax's power station in North Yorkshire, where two coal units will close later this year. Image: Drax/ A.Chadwick

The National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) publishes data on the generation mix on Twitter every day. Combined percentages for coal and gas were the highest in the week beginning 4 January than they have been in almost a year; on Friday (8 January), coal represented 7% of generation and gas represented 52.5%.

In contrast, coal provided just 1.6% of Britain’s electricity generation in 2020, down from around 25% in 2015. Britain broke several coal-free generation records in 2020. In total, the nation was powered coal-free for more than 5,147 hours during 2020, up from 3,666 hours in 2020. The longest consecutive coal-free streak lasted for two months and fell during the second quarter of 2020.

The peak in coal use seen in January is not likely to persist throughout 2021. It happened, the ESO has said, because of poor weather conditions for renewable generation, and because of increased electricity demands from homes. This happens every winter.

All coal-fired electricity generation will need to come offline by 2024 under legally binding climate plans. However, despite strong commitments to bring more offshore wind online, green groups have urged the government to take a broader look at renewables – supported by energy storage – to accelerate the transition away from gas-fired electricity generation.

Spotlight on nuclear

Trade body the Nuclear Industry Association is also urging the Government to do more to back nuclear generation as part of its plans for reaching net-zero. Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for the green recovery included a £525m pot to support smaller projects – a proportion of which is expected to go towards Rolls-Royce’s 16 mini reactors.

But this level of funding will not bridge the impending nuclear gap. Hunterston B, Hinkley Point B, Heysham I and Hartlepool nuclear power stations are all scheduled to retire by the end of 2024, representing more than 4 GW of nominal generating capacity. Another two large facilities are planning to come offline by 2030.

The Association claims that nuclear generation combined with renewables is “the only way to escape the fossil fuel trap” – i.e. provide energy security during winters in a low-carbon manner.

“Our existing fleet has produced more zero-carbon power than any other assets in Britain, but they are ageing and coming to the end of their service,” Association chief executive Tom Greatrex said. “Our own experience shows us that when nuclear goes offline, we burn more gas and emissions go up. So the path to net-zero starts with replacing the existing nuclear fleet, and investing in a strong and balanced zero-carbon mix.”

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recommendations on the sixth carbon budget, designed to deliver a 78% reduction in absolute national emissions by 2035 against a 1990 baseline, include measures to build enough new nuclear to replace the current fleet as a minimum.

But critics of nuclear power say that more must be done to minimise risks associated with radioactive waste releases and to prevent weapons proliferation.

There are also arguments around the costs associated with nuclear power. While some facilities are coming offline as they reach the end of their working life, others have closed prematurely, citing financial reasons. BEIS estimates that Levelized costs for nuclear projects commissioning in 2025 will average £95m per MWH, compared to £63m for large-scale solar and £61m for large-scale onshore wind. The cost for nuclear is, however, lower than offshore wind and fossil fuels at present.

Trade bodies like the Nuclear Industry Association have argued that more government support is needed to stimulate the market and bring down costs. Moreover, the CCC believes that the net-zero transition will cost just 0.5%-1% of GDP by 2050. Its original estimates had stood at around 2%.

Sarah George


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