Renewables Generate More Electricity Than Fossil Fuels in UK for First Time
By Simon Evans
During the three months of July, August and September, renewables generated an estimated total of 29.5 terawatt hours (TWh), compared with just 29.1TWh from fossil fuels, the analysis shows.
This is the first-ever quarter where renewables outpaced fossil fuels since the UK's first public electricity generating station opened in 1882. It is another symbolic milestone in the stunning transformation of the UK's electricity system over the past decade.
Nevertheless, a lack of progress in other parts of the economy means the UK remains far off track against its upcoming legally-binding carbon targets, let alone the recently adopted goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
At the start of this decade in 2010, the 288TWh generated from fossil fuels accounted for around three-quarters of the UK total. It was also more than 10 times as much electricity as the 26TWh that came from renewables.
Since then, electricity generation from renewable sources has more than quadrupled – and demand has fallen – leaving fossil fuels with a shrinking share of the total.
This shift is shown in the chart below, with the declining quarterly output from power stations burning coal, oil and gas in blue and rising generation from renewables in red.
(The quarterly chart also reflects the seasons, with demand higher in winter and lower in summer. Wind farm output is well matched with this cycle, as it tends to be windier in winter.)
Quarterly electricity generation in the UK between 2009 and the third quarter of 2019, in terawatt hours, with fossil-fuel output shown with a blue line (coal, oil and gas) and renewables shown in red (wind, biomass, solar and hydro). Source: BEIS Energy Trends and Carbon Brief analysis of data from BM Reports. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts
Gas now contributes the vast majority of that shrinking total, as coal plants close down ahead of a planned phaseout in 2025. These ageing power stations were mostly built in the 1960s and 70s and are increasingly uneconomic to run due to CO2 prices, market forces and pollution rules.
In the third quarter of 2019, some 39 percent of UK electricity generation was from coal, oil and gas, including 38% from gas and less than 1 percent from coal and oil combined.
Another 40 percent came from renewables, including 20 percent from wind, 12 percent from biomass and 6 percent from solar. Nuclear contributed most of the remainder, generating 19 percent of the total.
While it is unlikely that renewables will generate more electricity than fossil fuels during the full year of 2019, it is now a question of when – rather than if – this further milestone will be passed.
This summer, National Grid predicted that zero-carbon sources of electricity – wind, nuclear, solar and hydro, but not biomass – would generate more electricity than fossil fuels during 2019. Carbon Brief's analysis through to the third quarter of the year is in line with this forecast.
Over the past year, the most significant reason for rising renewable generation has been an increase in capacity as new offshore wind farms have opened. The 1,200 megawatt (MW) Hornsea One project was completed in October, becoming the world's largest offshore wind farm. The 588MW Beatrice offshore wind farm was completed in Q2 of this year.
These schemes add to the more than 2,100MW of offshore capacity that started operating during 2018. Further capacity is already being built, including the 714MW East Anglia One project that started generating electricity this year and will be completed in 2020.
In total, government contracts for offshore wind will take capacity from nearly 8,500MW today to around 20,000MW by the mid-2020s. The government and industry are jointly aiming for at least 30,000MW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, with two further contract auctions already expected.
In September, the latest auction round produced record-low deals for offshore wind farms that will generate electricity more cheaply than expected market prices – and potentially below the cost of running existing gas plants.
Other contributors to the recent increase in renewable generation include the opening of the 420MW Lynemouth biomass plant in Northumberland last year and the addition of hundreds of megawatts of new onshore wind and solar farms. (Another new 299MW biomass plant being built on Teesside, with a scheduled opening in early 2020, is facing "major delays".)
According to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the rise in renewable output during the first half of 2019 was down to these increases in capacity, with weather conditions not unusual for the time of year.
Some two-thirds of electricity generated from biomass in the UK comes from "plant biomass", primarily wood pellets burnt at Lynemouth and the Drax plant in Yorkshire. The remainder comes from an array of smaller sites based on landfill gas, sewage gas or anaerobic digestion.
The Committee on Climate Change says the UK should "move away" from large-scale biomass power plants, once existing subsidy contracts for Drax and Lynemouth expire in 2027.
Using biomass to generate electricity is not zero-carbon and in some circumstances could lead to higher emissions than from fossil fuels. Moreover, there are more valuable uses for the world's limited supply of biomass feedstock, the CCC says, including carbon sequestration and hard-to-abate sectors with few alternatives.
In terms of fossil-fuel generating capacity, the UK's remaining coal plants are rapidly closing down, well ahead of a 2025 deadline to phase out unabated burning of the fuel. By March 2020, just four coal plants will remain in the UK.
Utility firms have plans to build up to 30,000MW of new gas capacity – including 3,600MW at Drax recently given government planning approval – despite the fact that government projections suggest only around 6,000MW might be needed by 2035.
It is unlikely that all of the planned new gas capacity will get built. The schemes are generally reliant on winning contracts under the UK's capacity market, which is designed to ensure electricity supply is always sufficient to meet demand.
The rise of renewables means that gas generation is likely to continue falling in the UK, whether or not this new capacity gets built. Nevertheless, the UK is unlikely to meet its legally binding goal of cutting overall emissions to net-zero by 2050, unless progress in the electricity sector is matched by reductions in other parts of the UK economy, such as heating and transport.
Carbon Brief's electricity-sector analysis shows that renewables are also estimated to have generated more electricity than fossil fuels during the individual months of August and September, the first time there have been two consecutive such months.
Previously, renewables beat fossil fuels in September 2018 – the first-ever whole month – and then again in March 2019. This means that there have only ever been four months where renewables outpaced fossil generation, of which three have been this year and two in the last two months.
This is shown in the chart, below, which also highlights the greater month-to-month variability in electricity generation and demand, which is overlaid on top of the broader seasonal cycles.
Monthly electricity generation in the UK between 2012 and the third quarter of 2019, in terawatt hours, with fossil-fuel output shown with a blue line (coal, oil and gas) and renewables shown in red (wind, biomass, solar and hydro). Source: Carbon Brief analysis of data from BEIS Energy Trends and BM Reports. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts
In the first three quarters of 2019, renewables outpaced fossil fuels on 103 of the 273 individual days, Carbon Brief analysis suggests. This is more than one-third of the days in the year so far and includes 40 of the 91 days in the third quarter of 2019.
(Although this is not a majority of days, the aggregate output during the quarter was higher for renewables. This is because their excess over fossil fuels was large on some days.)
As expected from the monthly aggregates in the chart, above, these days with higher renewable generation are concentrated in March and the third quarter of 2019, as shown in the chart, below.
Daily electricity generation in the UK during the first three quarters of 2019, in terawatt hours, with fossil-fuel output shown with a blue line (coal, oil and gas) and renewables shown in red (wind, biomass, solar and hydro). Source: Carbon Brief analysis of data from BEIS Energy Trends and BM Reports. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
The total of 103 days with higher renewable electricity generation than from fossil fuels in the first three quarters of the year is far in excess of the 67 such days by the same point in 2018.
This is shown in the chart, below, which also highlights the fact that there had never been any days with higher renewable generation until 2015.
Cumulative count of days each year when electricity generation from renewables was higher than that from fossil fuels. Prior to 2015 there were no days when renewables outpaced fossil fuels. Source: Carbon Brief analysis of data from BEIS Energy Trends and BM Reports. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
There have already been nearly as many higher renewable days in the first three quarters of 2019, at 103, as there were in the whole of 2018, which saw 107 such days. There were only 58 such days in 2017, just 16 in 2016 and 12 in 2015. The first ever day when UK renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels was 11 April 2015.
The figures in the article are from Carbon Brief analysis of data from BEIS Energy Trends chapter 5 and chapter 6, as well as from BM Reports. The figures from BM Reports are for electricity supplied to the grid in Great Britain only and are adjusted to include Northern Ireland.
In Carbon Brief's analysis, the BM Reports numbers are also adjusted to account for electricity used by power plants on site and for generation by plants not connected to the high-voltage national grid. This includes many onshore wind farms, as well as industrial gas combined heat and power plants and those burning landfill gas, waste or sewage gas.
By design, the Carbon Brief analysis is intended to align as closely as possible to the official government figures on electricity generated in the UK, reported in BEIS Energy Trends table 5.1. Briefly, the raw data for each fuel is adjusted with a multiplier, derived from the ratio between the reported BEIS numbers and unadjusted figures for previous quarters.
Carbon Brief's method of analysis has been verified against published BEIS figures using "hindcasting". This shows the estimates for total electricity generation from fossil fuels or renewables to have been within ±3% of the BEIS number in each quarter since Q4 2017. (Data before then is not sufficient to carry out the Carbon Brief analysis.)
For example, in the second quarter of 2019, a Carbon Brief hindcast estimates gas generation at 33.1TWh, whereas the published BEIS figure was 34.0TWh. Similarly, it produces an estimate of 27.4TWh for renewables, against a BEIS figure of 27.1TWh.
The Carbon Brief estimated totals for fossil fuels and renewables are very close in Q3 2019, coming within 0.5TWh of each other. This means that despite the relatively low level of uncertainty in the estimates, their relative position could be reversed in the official BEIS data.
This serves to emphasize the fact that the broader trend of decline for fossil fuels and an increase for renewables is of far greater significance than the precise figures for any individual quarter.
In contrast to Carbon Brief's analysis, figures published by consultancy EnAppSys for the third quarter of 2019 suggest that fossil fuels generated slightly more electricity than renewables. There are several reasons for this difference.
First, the company's analysis is for Great Britain only, whereas Carbon Brief's covers the UK overall. Second, it reports on electricity "supplied" in the country, including imports, whereas Carbon Brief estimates the amount of electricity "generated" within the UK only.
Third, Carbon Brief's analysis is, by design, aligned with the quarterly BEIS Energy Trends data for electricity generation, whereas EnAppSys uses its own approach.
For comparison, EnAppSys reported for the second quarter of 2019 that 28.3TWh was supplied in GB from gas, whereas BEIS reports that 34.0TWh was generated in the UK. Similarly EnAppSys reported 23.1TWh coming from renewables, against a BEIS figure of 27.1TWh.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
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After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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