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.

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

Pictured: The West Burton A coal power plant in Nottinghamshire. Image: Richard Croft

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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edie’s COP26 Primer Reports are about seizing the green opportunity of the crucial conference in Glasgow this November. Produced in the run-up to the official talks, this mini-series of reports are based on the five key themes of COP26: Clean Energy, Clean Transport, Climate Resilience, Nature-Based Solutions, and Climate Finance.

The Clean Transport report – the first in this series – is now available to download for free here. Hosted in association with British Gas, it contains an up-to-date snapshot of clean energy policies, progress and challenges globally, as well as outlining the desired outcome in this field at the talks themselves. Also detailed are the ways in which the private and public sector can contribute to the energy transition at this pivotal moment in time. 

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Sarah George

Comments (4)

  1. Lawrence Rose says:

    This article misrepresents the facts to such an extent that I have to set the facts out. All of the data I quote here are taken from the official GB figures that can be checked using the Balancing Mechanism Reporting Service on the official Elexon website.

    Nuclear is in a very different situation to Wind and Solar. Nuclear provides relatively steady base supply. Nuclear is forecast to reduce in generation over the coming years, and even the reduced targets may not be achieved based on current plans for new facilities. But Nuclear does not deal with peaks and troughs in demand.

    Peaks and troughs in demand are currently dealt with primarily by gas and coal.

    Rumours of coal s demise are largely untrue. Comparing Jan to April 2021 to Jan to April 2020 it has reduced by 27%, but it still generated 2.2 TWh in that time, many times more than the National Grid s forecast. We need to stop using coal, but we are still using it whenever we need to, which is very often. Last week (w/c 10 April) it was burnt every day. On Friday is was generating more electricity than all GB offshore and onshore wind farms combined for part of the day.

    So, to the biggest part of this misrepresentation. Why did gas generation go up so much?

    Over the same period national demand increased by just over 3%.

    However, despite more capacity electricity generation from wind fell by 18%. What was the reason for this? It s simple, less wind. It could happen any time.

    So, gas generation increased by more than 30% to counter this drop, and to cover the small reduction in generation from coal. We can control generation using gas, so when the wind fails to deliver that is our backup. That is how it works at the moment.

    It s not surprising that RenewableUK want us to implement more wind. They are the wind trade body .

    But, do you think we need more reliance on wind?

  2. John Briggs says:

    Could it be that the wind was much less in 2021 than in 2020? If this is the case then it emphasises the need for nuclear power.

  3. Lawrence Rose says:

    Wind has been less so far in 2021 than in 2020.

    However, the plan is to rely more on wind. The problem is that wind cannot be relied upon so we need an alternative for when it isn’t windy. At present that is gas and coal. To achieve net zero, they both need to be eliminated.

    So, what are the alternatives? The main contenders are interconnectors (cannot be depended upon and the planned levels are not sufficient), storage (we would need absolutely vast quantities, probably needing more materials than we can possibly acquire) and hydrogen (which might help, but being able to produce and use the required quantities are a long way off yet).

    More nuclear would certainly help with base supply, but it is not used as a dispatchable resource to cover intermittency. In any case we would need such huge quantities requiring many large power stations for our requirements that even if the current reluctance by the government to commit to nuclear power were overcome it would be decades before enough such power stations could be generating power.

  4. Lawrence Rose says:

    Just noticed a typo in my earlier comment. "Last week (w/c 10 April)" should read "Last week (w/c 10 May)". Sorry!

    (Although, if anything w/c 10 April was even worse, with very low wind and lots of coal being burnt!)

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