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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.