British renewable energy capacity surpasses fossil fuels for first time

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Renewable energy capacity has for the first time overtaken fossil fuel capacity in Great Britain, with 42 GW worth of capacity now feeding into the grid.

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Nick Ansell/PA Wire
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New figures from British electrical power company Drax Group has revealed that renewable energy capacity has for the first time overtaken fossil fuel capacity in Great Britain, with 42 GW worth of capacity now feeding into the grid.

A combination of retiring fossil fuel generating capacity and increasing renewable energy capacity – including capacity from wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and other renewables – helped renewables finally take the mantle away from fossil fuels. In total, renewable energy now boasts 42 GW worth of capacity while fossil fuels can only claim 40.6 GW.

Specifically, a third of all fossil fuel generating capacity has been retired over the last five years, while renewable energy capacity has tripled. Further, wind farms now provide the largest share of renewable energy capacity on the system, boasting over 20 GW – including 45% of the world’s offshore wind capacity – while solar came in second with 13 GW, and biomass in third with 3.2 GW.

Drax highlighted the important role that biomass played in tipping the balance from fossil fuels to renewable energy, following the conversion of two coal projects to biomass being completed during the third quarter – one at at Lynemouth in Northumberland and Drax Power Station’s Unit 4 conversion in Yorkshire – adding a total of 1 GW.

“Phasing out fossil fuels has become an economic imperative as well as an environmental one, as clean technologies such as new onshore wind and solar are cheaper than gas or coal,” said RenewableUK’s Head of External Affairs Luke Clark.

“Any Government around the world which is serious about putting consumers first and tackling climate change will understand the logic of prioritising renewables. In the UK, wind is leading the way, generating half our country’s renewable power. Offshore wind alone is set to generate one-third of our electricity by 2030, forming the backbone of our new clean energy system.”

It’s worth noting, however, that balancing the British power system has contributed to other factors pushing up the country’s power prices (which also include Brexit and currency devaluation). Specifically, balancing the power system added 6% to wholesale prices as the day-to-day costs of running transmission systems were increased to £3.8 million per day during the third quarter of 2018.

“The cost of balancing the system has doubled in the last four years,” explained Dr Iain Staffell from Imperial. “The amount of flexible generation on the system is a key driver. Balancing costs rise when the output from flexible generators such as gas, coal, biomass and hydro, falls below 10 GW.

“Having a ‘brittle’ power system with limited flexibility will be more expensive to control. More flexible generation, storage and demand-side response will be critical in minimising system costs in the future.”

“More renewables are crucial for reducing carbon emissions and helping us to meet our climate targets – but flexible, lower carbon generation, is also clearly vital for controlling the costs of maintaining a stable, low carbon power system,” added Andy Koss, Drax Power CEO.

“The IPCC’s report recognised that in order to meet our climate change targets, up to 85% of global power generation needs to come from renewables by 2050. This means the remainder will have to be provided by flexible sources, which can support the system and help to keep costs down – such as biomass, hydro, pumped storage as well as high efficiency gas.”

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