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

Pictured: Drax's power station in North Yorkshire

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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Comments (6)

  1. Lawrence Rose says:

    Unfortunately this article betrays a sad lack of understanding of how different energy sources work together to provide electricity in GB.

    Nuclear provides a significant contribution to our "base load" requirement, which is currently around 25GW throughout the year. It is true that the plans currently indicate a reduction in nuclear for the reasons stated, so we have that problem. There is a strong argument that we need to maintain or even increase nuclear capacity to help to supply our base load .

    The plan is to also use CCS biomass to supply base load in the longer term, replacing the current contribution from non-CCS biomass.

    The rest of our load (above base) varies up to about a further 30GW or so, depending on the time of year and the time of the week. We use primarily gas and to a lesser extent coal to make up the deficit, together with some other sources, including interconnectors, storage, hydro, etc..

    Wind and solar cannot actually solve this reliably as they are intermittent. When wind and/or solar are available they can make a contribution, and often do. When they aren’t adequate (and they have never been adequate even for 1 minute in GB), we use those controllable sources to achieve the required supply. These need to be controllable so that we can always meet the required demand without relying on the whims of the weather.

    In the longer term the plan is to solve intermittency using more storage and increased capacity from the international interconnector network.

    In the meantime, an attempt to say that this is a balancing act of some kind between nuclear and gas+coal just shows that the author needs to find out more about the basic of electricity supply in GB. Having more nuclear capacity won t solve the intermittency issue, which is what we need to do to eliminate coal and (later) gas.

  2. Keiron Shatwell says:

    And the award for "Stating the Bleedin Obvious" goes to ……………

    Many of us have been saying just this, that "renewables" (especially wind and solar) can not provide reliable enough generation capability to ensure continuous supply to demand. We HAVE to have backup or reliable sources. More investment into Hydro, Pumped Storage, Tidal Stream and even Fluvial is required.

    Oh and you do know that many wind turbine farms have diesel generators on site to provide backup? How "Green" is that?

  3. Lawrence Rose says:

    What I wrote is certainly not obvious to everybody.

    It’s worth noting that the National Grid’s plans to 2050 only include your proposed sources to a limited extent.

    Can you provide any quantified justification for any of them to work in GB to a significant level?

    Hydro fails on the shortage of mountains, etc.

  4. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @ Lawrence

    The probable reason the proposed sources are only included to a limited extent is because there is next to zero support for them.

    Atlantis Resources have a field of tidal turbines in the Pentland Firth providing multiple megawatts (the total escapes me right now) and O2 are developing their tidal turbine which can provide 2MW per turbine and could be installed wherever there is a suitable tidal stream (such as the Corran Narrows near where I live which runs at 6kts).

    Hydro does not need mountains. It just needs flow. There is a power station on the River Tay that has a 15m hydrostatic head but produces 15MW+ from the immense flow of the Tay at that point. It has been producing reliable base load power for decades. There are many other suitable locations along all the major rivers in UK that could produce similar amounts and soon adds up to GW. During the Middle Ages every river in Britain has harnessed every half mile to power everything from grain mills to blast furnace, all powered by running water.

    We either diversify our power generation options into all forms available to us or we continue to build wind turbines and solar farms that don’t provide a single Watt when it is calm or dark. I don’t know about you but I’d rather not have to go back to using candles when the wind don’t blow and it is foggy or nightime.

  5. Lawrence Rose says:

    We need total supply that ranges from about 25GW to about 65GW (more or less).

    The total supply to grid at present for all marine sources is only about 15MW.

    The total to the grid for hydro is currently about 1.3GW.

    The National Grid are keen to plug the gap, and if you can suggest ways to plug either the base load (constant) gap or the variable gap, I think they’d be keen to hear them!

    I also don’t see wind farms and solar as a good solution. The problem is that they can provide a solution some of the time, whereas nobody can come up with one that provides a "net zero" solution that provides electricity all of the time. They re trying to do it with interconnectors and storage, of course.

    Anyway, this discussion has now drifted from the original subject, which is that nuclear is not a competitor to coal+gas. They each supply a different component of demand. At present we need all of them, but one can t replace the other.

    We need to get rid of coal and gas.

    I would also like to have electricity all of the time.

    I’m just another very awkward customer, I suppose.

  6. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @ Lawrence – we are on the same page, I agree we can not keep burning things to generate electricity (and I personally include biomass in that, particularly where it burns virgin wood not wood waste). At the end of the day every watt that can be generated without burning something is a good thing be that wind, solar, tidal, river or some new technology we haven’t determined yet. And there is room for all other sources to be scaled up if only the subsidies were available the same as Wind had.

    Nuclear is not a competitor to anything, none of them compete with each other really. Nuclear’s strength is the consistency of supply, its weakness is cost. Gas’ strength is speed of ignition, weakness is of course emissions (same for Coal), Wind is "clean" but unreliable, Solar doesn’t work at night or when it is heavy overcast or foggy. There’s pros and cons to every generation system.

    One big thing we can all do though is to stop wasting energy. I think electricity is actually too cheap right now, so cheap it doesn’t encourage people to think about how they are wasting it. Think if we all tried to reduce our electricity demand by 10% we could avoid having to build another Hinkley C power station (3.2GW).

    The big problem is going to come when we all have Electric Cars, all public transport is electric and all our heating has to be electric (even Heat Pumps have to use electricity). Then demand is going to skyrocket!

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