UK lockdown contributes to cleaner year for power production in the UK

General
Solar 21
July 1, 2020

Britain has been on a record coal-free run, and renewable energy has overtaken fossil fuels for the first time, generating more than 40% of Britain’s power in the first three months of the year.

From 10th April for over two months, coal generated 0% of Britain’s power, making this coal-free run the longest since the industrial revolution. The achievement is a mark of the success of the British government’s plan to close all coal-fired power plants by 2025. As it stands, all but four of the UK’s coal power plants have been shut down. Coal made up only 2.1% of the country’s total power mix last year, a dramatic fall from almost a quarter just four years ago.

The windiest February since records began helped make it the first month ever when more electricity was produced by wind farms than gas-fired power stations across the country. The sunniest May on record boosted solar production.

Lowest carbon intensity on record achieved in May

The lower demand for electricity brought about by the lockdown has meant that coal and some gas power plants have been turned down or switched off. This, along with the rise of renewable energy generators, has led to a drastic reduction in carbon emissions from the UK power sector.  Since 2012, the average carbon intensity of the grid – the amount of emissions required to produce one kilowatt hour of energy – has declined by more than two-thirds, from 507g of CO2 to 161g. In May this year it was as low as 143g of CO2 per kilowatt hour, making it the greenest month for electricity production ever, with the lowest average carbon intensity on record.

Even before the nationwide lockdown, the grid was cleaner over the first quarter of the year than in the same period in 2019.

The weather

A common complaint about low-carbon generation in the UK is of course that it is weather dependent – needing wind mainly, and some sun. Power from these sources is not guaranteed. And what happens when there is extreme demand, for example during extended cold snaps? As coal generation is phased out, the electrical system needs to continue to find alternative power sources to provide base load power during extreme weather events.

This is where energy recovery from waste comes in. It is estimated that the total power exported by EFW plants in the UK in 2019 was 6,703GWh – approximately 2.0% of total UK generation, together with just under 1,400GWh of heat (Figures from UK EfW Statistics 2019 report from Tolvik).

As for carbon intensity, EFW has the ability to reduce carbon intensity by 0.032 mtC02e (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) per tonne of input waste when the substitution benefits of heat and power being produced from non-fossil fuel sources are taken into account, and the avoidance of CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases which would arise had the waste gone to landfill. (Carbon intensity figures from UK EfW Statistics 2019 report from Tolvik)

The sector is set to become a more significant part of the UK’s power generation landscape as the policy outlined in 2017’s Clean Growth Strategy to have zero avoidable waste going to landfill by 2050 scales up. At the end of 2019, there were 53 EFW plants in operation or in late commissioning with 11 in construction.

During the lockdown, energy and waste workers were considered key workers and waste collection workers were described as being an important shield against Covid-19.

See Solar 21’s EFW projects here.

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