Renewable energy sources generated more electricity than fossil fuels in the U.K. for the whole of the third quarter, the first time that has happened, according to research by the Carbon Brief.
Chunky capacity additions, largely from offshore wind, alongside a spate of coal plant closures and an overall decrease in demand have all accelerated the trend.
Fossil fuels’ share of the electricity mix was 10 times larger than renewables’ share a decade ago, Carbon Brief's data shows.
The growth of renewable energy capacity in the U.K. has remained fairly steady in recent years, with sharp additions of solar and now offshore wind making up for a softening of onshore wind.
In the space of a decade, installed solar capacity has increased from a negligible level to more than 13 gigawatts. Biomass grew from 285 megawatts in 2009 to almost 4.5 gigawatts in 2018.
Meanwhile, the closure of EDF’s Cottam coal power plant last month means there are now just six such plants remaining. Two of those will close next spring.
The Drax power plant has recently been approved for a conversion to natural-gas generation with as much as 200 megawatts of battery power on site. The remaining three coal plants have no retirement schedule in place, but the government’s 2025 shutoff date looms large.
While the pace of change is impressive, the U.K. looks likely to miss many of its own climate and energy targets. The government's independent climate advisory board has been scathing in its criticism of the country's progress, claiming that only one of 25 crucial policies have been implemented, an awkward reality ahead of next year's COP26 climate negotiations in Scotland.
National Grid ESO is preparing for big changes to continue in the U.K., insisting that it could deliver a carbon-neutral grid as early as 2025.
The country is targeting a net-zero-carbon economy by 2050. National Grid ESO has a schedule of tenders planned for the next five years to address inertia and voltage management. Increased energy storage deployment will assist with frequency control, and enhanced forecasting and data usage will improve the planning and management.
But just because the grid is ready doesn’t mean the required renewable generation will be.
With Brexit swallowing up a huge volume of time for both the government and legislators, the progress of the last decade is should not be taken for granted.
Despite the first signs of subsidy-free solar in the U.K., sites of 50 megawatts and over must go through the national planning inspectorate, a lengthy and expensive process. Cue the rise of the 49.9-megawatt solar farm, such as the Cholderton project proposed by Lightsource BP in southern England.
Offshore wind’s route to market is the successful contracts for difference (CFD) mechanism, but the biannual auctions are capped to keep developers’ bids competitive.
Onshore wind has faced planning obstacles, with an effective moratorium on new approvals handed down in 2015. The sector now wants access to the CFD process.
In August, there was a renewed call for support for the sector in an open letter signed by Vattenfall, EDF and Vestas. But it is currently very difficult to get the ear of the U.K. government while the Brexit noise dominates and department staff are overloaded.
The Institute for Government think tank said the volume of legislation introduced since the 2017 general election is normal, but that “the scope and ambition of its non-Brexit legislation has been decidedly limited.”