2017 named ‘greenest ever’ for electricity

11 January 2018

Came across some very good statistics today! According to Carbon Brief, more than half of the electricity in the UK came from low-carbon sources for the first time in 2017. This is an amazing milestone on all counts. This basically means that more electricity was generated in 2017 between nuclear and renewables than all the fossil fuels combined. According to the Carbon Brief report, wind alone generated more than twice as much electricity as coal, supplying more power every month except in January.

"The UK electricity sector passed a string of other symbolic markers in 2017, from its first coal-free day since 1882 to new records for wind and solar generation. This led NGO WWF to dub the year the 'greenest ever' for electricity – with prime minister Theresa May tweeting her support."

This is on par with the findings in 2016 when wind-farms generated more electricity than coal. However what is more astounding in 2017 is that low-carbon sources supplied more than half the total of the electricity generated for the first time. The share from nuclear and renewables has doubled between 2009 and 2017, just breaking the 50% mark.

Fossil fuels, on the other hand, supplied 47.5% of generation, down from 75.4% in 2010, according to Carbon Brief. With coal generation having plummeted over the past five years, the lion’s share of today’s fossil supply comes from gas.

Notably, coal generation fell by a further 25% in 2017 to 23TWh. Meanwhile, gas generation also fell, down 7% to 134TWh, well below its 175TWh output in 2010. Nevertheless, gas was the single largest fuel by far, supplying some 40% of generation in 2017. 

Nonetheless, the emissions from the power sector remain far above the levels needed to meet the legally-binding UK carbon targets under the Paris Climate Agreement despite the progress in decarbonising the rest of the economy being limited.

It would be safe to presume that the rise of low-carbon electricity has been steadily increasing in no small part thanks to the government-initiated incentives for renewables. However, additional subsidies in the medium term have been ruled out by the government, beyond those already agreed and/or promised. Saying that, Carbon Brief believes that as the cost for renewables declines, a subsidy-free deployment might still be a possibility.

Although the largest increase in low-carbon electricity generation came from a single source – wind – which was up 31% to 49 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2017, nuclear remains the single largest source in the UK, and the second largest overall. Last year saw figures from nuclear soar a whopping 70TWh.

Other renewables that also generated more in 2017 than the year before includes solar, rising 11% and biomass by 4%, despite a fuel supply problem at Drax, the UK's largest power station, which has converted half its capacity to burn wood pellets.

A snippet from the Carbon Brief report states:

It’s worth adding that the 31TWh of biomass electricity comes from a wide range of sources. Large sites burning wood, such as Drax, have become controversial, due to uncertainty over how long it will take for new, growing trees to offset raised carbon emissions at the power plant, particularly if trees are harvested exclusively to generate electricity.

In a recent guest article for Carbon Brief, Prof Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser between 2008 and 2013, wrote: “A reasonable estimate [for this case] might be that every kilowatt hour of wood at least doubles the emissions over a period of 30 years that might otherwise occur even if the alternative were fossil fuels.”

According to Electric Insight’s estimates, the carbon intensity of UK power fell by 10% to 237gCO2/kWh in 2017, half the 508gCO2/kWh in 2012. (Note that this estimate covers all electricity supplied in the UK, including imported power from France and the Netherlands. In 2017, the UK sourced 15TWh from imports, up from zero in 2010. Last year saw a slight decrease on 2016, after a raft of nuclear plants were taken offline in France for repairs).