UK's electricity grid emissions up year-on-year, despite net-zero pledge

Data revealing that the carbon intensity of the UK's electricity was 5% higher in the first months of 2021 than 2020 has prompted industry calls for greater support for new wind, solar and nuclear capacity.

Pictured: The West Burton A coal power plant in Nottinghamshire. Image: Richard Croft, CC ShareAlike 2.0, geograph commons

Pictured: The West Burton A coal power plant in Nottinghamshire. Image: Richard Croft, CC ShareAlike 2.0, geograph commons

The data, published by National Grid ESO this week, accounts for the electricity consumed across the UK between January and April. The carbon intensity of electricity during this four-month period was up 5% year-on-year.

April’s data in particular has sparked concerns. The grid was, on an average April day this year, producing one-fifth more carbon on an intensity basis than it was on the average April day in 2020.

This increase is largely due to an increase in gas-fired generation, given that almost all of the UK’s coal-fired generation has now been phased out ahead of the legal deadline of 2024. Gas-fired generation, on a production basis, was 22% higher in the first third of 2021 than 2020, largely due to increasing demand.

The findings stand in contrast to the record-breaking coal-free and low-carbon days and streaks that National Grid ESO and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have been communicating through their websites and social media channels, a group of trade bodies have said.

The trade bodies – RenewableUK, Solar Energy UK and the Nuclear Industry Association – have argued that the data is evidence that the UK needs a clearer plan to rapidly increase new generation capacity across the wind, solar and nuclear sector.

RenewableUK is calling for Government to set specific 2030 deployment targets for key renewable technologies it represents – 30GW of onshore wind, 2GW of floating wind, 5GW of green hydrogen and 1GW of marine energy.

Building on these recommendations, which were first raised in a new report earlier this month, solar energy UK is urging the Government to target 40GW solar deployment by 2030. Meeting this target, the group claims, will require several policy changes, including adding solar to the Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction process and cutting rates for businesses and homeowners looking to add solar roofs.

The Nuclear Industry Association, meanwhile, wants BEIS to work with the Treasury to endorse a financing model for new nuclear projects this year, setting out a plan to bridge the impending nuclear gap by the early 2030s. Six of the UK’s nuclear plants are planning to go offline by 2030. While some are reaching the natural end of their working life, others have reported increased costs in recent years and are predicting further hikes without government support.

All of the trade bodies pointed to the fact that the UK’s only 2030 target for renewable energy is for offshore wind. Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan, released in November 2020, targets 40GW of offshore wind by the end of the decade – a commitment backed with a Sector Deal targeting £20bn of private investment. No other renewable energy sectors have a Sector Deal or 2030 target.

“We’re urging Ministers to set out key milestones in renewable technologies which will help us to decarbonise the grid as fast as possible,” RenewableUK’s deputy chief executive Melanie Onn said. “In the run-up to COP26, we need a detailed roadmap including specific deployment targets for onshore wind, floating wind, renewable hydrogen and marine energy to be achieved by the end of this decade”.  

Energy transition

The call to action comes in the same week that the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its first comprehensive roadmap on what a global net-zero transition would mean for the heat, power and transport sectors through to 2050.

The roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones on the global journey to net-zero.  On renewable electricity generation specifically, the global solar PV generation capacity should reach 630GW and the global wind generation capacity should reach 390GW by 2030. This is around quadruple current levels.

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Sarah George


net-zero | nuclear | renewables


Energy efficiency & low-carbon | Renewables | Green policy

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