Britain now generates twice as much energy from wind as from coal

Burbo Bank wind farm, in the river Mersey. Image: Getty.

Just six years ago, more than 40 per cent of Britain’s electricity was generated by burning coal. Today, that figure is just 7 per cent. Yet if the story of 2016 was the dramatic demise of coal and its replacement by natural gas, then 2017 was most definitely about the growth of wind power.

Wind provided 15 per cent of electricity in Britain last year (Northern Ireland shares an electricity system with the Republic and is calculated separately), up from 10 per cent in 2016. This increase, a result of both more wind farms coming online and a windier year, helped further reduce coal use and also put a stop to the rise in natural gas generation.

Great Britain’s annual electrical energy mix 2017. Author calculations from data sources: National Grid and Elexon.

In October 2017, the combination of wind, solar and hydro generated a quarter of Britain’s electricity over the entire month, a new record helped by ex-hurricane Ophelia and storm Brian.

Great Britain’s annual electrical energy mix 2017 per month (note: nuclear and gas not shown). Author calculations from data sources: National Grid and Elexon.

Since that record month, large new offshore wind farms have started to come online. Dudgeon began generating off the Norfolk coast, as did Rampion, which can be seen from Brighton town centre.

In all, Britain’s wind output increased by 14 terawatt hours between 2016 and 2017 – enough to power 4.5m homes. To give a sense of scale, this increase alone is more than the expected annual output from one of the two new nuclear reactors being built at Hinkley Point C.

Not only is offshore wind growing fast, it is also getting much cheaper. When the latest round of government auctions for low-carbon electricity were awarded last year, two of the winning bids from offshore wind developers had a “strike price” of £57.50 per megawatt hour (MWh). This is considerably cheaper than the equivalent contract for Hinkley Point of £92.50/MWh (in 2012 prices).

Rampion wind farm begins about 13km offshore from Brighton. Image: Dominic Alves/Flickr/creative commons.

Although these wind farms won’t be built for another five years, this puts competitive pressure on other forms of low-carbon electricity. If there is to be a nuclear renaissance, or if fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage are to become a reality, these industries will have to adjust to the new economic reality of renewable energy.

Britain is using less electricity

Overall demand for electricity also continued its 12-year downward trend. More of the electricity “embedded” in the products and services used in the UK is now imported rather than produced at home, and energy efficiency measures mean the country can do more with less. This meant Britain in 2017 used about as much electricity as it did way back in 1987 – despite the considerable population growth.

At some point this trend will reverse though, as electric vehicles and heat pumps become more common and electricity partly replaces liquid fuels for transport and natural gas for heating respectively. One major challenge this brings is how to accommodate greater seasonal and daily variation in the electricity system, without resorting to the benefits of fossil fuels, which can be pretty cheaply stored until required.

Electricity generated in Britain is now the cleanest it’s ever been. Coal and natural gas together produced less than half of the total generated. Britain’s electricity was completely “coal free” for 613 hours last year, up from 200 hours in 2016. This position would be wholly unthinkable in many countries including Germany, India, China and the US, which still rely heavily on coal generation throughout the year.

Great Britain’s annual electrical energy mix - fossil fuels drop below 50 per cent for first time. Author calculations from data sources: National Grid and Elexon.

However, the low level of coal generation over 2017 masks its continued importance in providing capacity during hours of peak demand. During the top 10 per cent hours of highest electrical demand, coal provided a sixth of Britain’s electricity. When it matters most, coal is relied on more than nuclear, and more than the combined output from wind + solar + hydro. Additional energy storage could help wind and solar meet more of this peak demand with greater certainty.

Looking forward to this year, we would be surprised if wind generation dropped much from its current levels. Last year wasn’t even particularly windy compared to the longer-term average, and more capacity will be coming online. Equally, it would be surprising if solar and hydro combined produced significantly less than they did last year.

It is therefore inevitable that another significant milestone will be reached this year. At some point, for several hours, wind, solar and hydro will together, for the first time, provide more than half of Britain’s electricity generation. This goes to show just how much a major power system can be reworked within a decade.


The ConversationThe data used in this article is based on the Energy Charts and Electric Insights websites, which allow readers to visualise and explore data on generation and consumption from Elexon and National Grid. Data from other analyses (such as BEIS or DUKES) will differ due to their methodology, particularly by including combined heat and power, and other on-site generation which is not monitored by National Grid and Elexon. Our estimated carbon emissions are based on Iain Staffell’s research published in Energy Policy, and account for foreign emissions due to electricity imports and biomass fuel processing.

Grant Wilson, Teaching and Research Fellow, Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Sheffield and Iain Staffell, Lecturer in Sustainable Energy, Imperial College London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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