By Simon Evans
Saturday, April 9 was the first-ever day where more electricity was generated in the UK by solar than by coal. May 2016 was the first-ever month. The three months from June through to September was the first-ever quarter. And now the six months to September is the first half year.
The UK's pioneering community energy project, Westmill Solar Park and Wind Farm in Oxfordshire, England.Richard Peat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)
These firsts reflect the changing face of UK electricity supplies, with solar capacity having nearly doubled during 2015. They also reflect historic lows for coal-fired generation, driven by changes in wholesale energy markets and the carbon price floor. Carbon Brief runs through the numbers.
Solar Six Months
The UK's solar panels generated an estimated 6,964 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity during quarter two (Q2) and three (Q3) of 2016, from April through to September. (See note below regarding data sources and methodology).
The solar output was equivalent to 5.2 percent of UK electricity demand for the half-year period. It was nearly 10 percent higher than the 6,342 GWh generated by coal, which covered 4.7 percent of demand.
Starting on July 1, there were 10 straight weeks when solar output exceeded that from coal.
Solar output is strongly affected by the UK's seasonal cycle. Roughly three-quarters of annual UK solar power is generated during the sunnier half-year from April to September. In contrast, coal generation tends to increase in winter when electricity demand peaks.
The chart below shows these contrasting seasonal cycles. It also shows two contrasting broader trends.
First, UK solar capacity has to date reached around 12 gigawatts (GW), according to research by Solar Intelligence, up from around 6GW at the start of 2015. Solar generation is increasing as a result, up 26 percent in 2016 to date, compared to the same period in 2015.
(Note that solar capacity additions have fallen this year, following subsidy cuts. Note also that while government figures for new capacity have been consistently too low, independent estimates also show the drop.)
Total electricity generation from UK solar and coal during calendar months in 2015 and 2016 to date, gigawatt hours (GWh). Sources: Sheffield Solar and Gridwatch. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Second, the chart shows how coal generation has fallen rapidly, at a rate that is far beyond its usual annual cycle. Output in 2016 to date was 65 percent below that in 2015. It was down 76 percent in Q2 and 82 percent in Q3 compared to a year earlier.
This year also saw UK coal generation fall to zero on April 9, for the first time since 1882, when a coal-fired power station started supplying electricity to the public for the first time. Since then, there have been 199 hours when coal was generating no power in the UK.
The drop in coal output has come about because of wholesale energy market price shifts being more favorable to gas-fired generators than to coal. In addition, the UK's carbon floor price doubled in April 2015, again shifting the economics of electricity generation in favor of gas over coal.
The key role of the carbon floor price in driving coal off the system is underlined in recent analysis from consultancy Cornwall Energy. This shows that removing the UK's top-up carbon tax would mean coal plants once again being cheaper to run than gas.
Tom Edwards, Cornwall Energy senior consultant writes:
"This would return the market to the position seen in 2014 when coal-fired generators were running baseload [all the time] and gas-fired stations were pushed to the margin."
It's worth noting that while gas-fired power stations have replaced most of the reduction in coal output, the total supplied by the two fossil fuels is also falling. This is because of increases in electricity supplied by renewables and imports, along with falling demand.
Methods: The figures for shares of total UK electricity generation are estimates. They only include solar generation and other forms of generation that are connected to the transmission grid network. Embedded generation from wind or other sources is not centrally metered and data is not available. However, this missing data will not alter the relative positions of solar and coal generation.
Figures for solar output in the UK are estimates produced by Sheffield Solar. The project recently updated its estimates of installed UK solar capacity. Its estimates scale real live data obtained from 324 solar sites around the UK.
Carbon Brief analysis shows the Sheffield Solar estimates to have a very small average error of 4%, compared to official government figures for solar generation since the start of 2015.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
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As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
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