It’s been a bad year for fossil fuels in the UK. In May, Great Britain went two weeks without burning any coal for electricity – the longest stretch of coal-free electricity since the first coal-fired power station came online in 1882. In late June the National Grid confidently predicted that in 2019, fossil fuels would make up less than half of the total electricity mix for the first time ever.
Fossil fuel, it seems, is entering its twilight years. In 2009, 75 per cent of Great Britain’s electricity was produced by burning coal or gas. In the first five five months of 2019, that portion fell to just 44 per cent. In the same time period, wind has soared from providing one per cent of total electricity to just under a fifth.
But the decline of high-carbon energy might not be as imminent as the headline make things seem. In the UK, heating is still overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuel. And on the electricity front, the UK is due to lose seven of its eight nuclear power plants in the next decade, leaving an energy production gap against the backdrop of increasing electricity demand from the rise of electric vehicles.
So are fossil fuels really on the way out in the UK? Not quite yet. While electricity production has been shifting fairly speedily towards renewables, heating – which makes up 40 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption – has been lagging way behind, says Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute. Some 85 per cent of UK households are still heated using fossil-fuel based natural gas. Cleaning up in-home heating would require switching to heat pumps, which run on electricity and draw warmth from the environment to heat homes, or burning biowaste.
But heat pumps are only useful if homes are so well insulated that they only require a small amount of heating. And the UK isn’t doing well on that front either. According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK’s 29 million existing homes aren’t being insulated fast enough to save on needless carbon emissions.
To push the government towards cleaner heating, the CCC – an independent body that advises the UK government on tackling climate change – has set a 2025 deadline, after which any new homes should not be connected to the gas grid at all. But homes aren’t being heated by gas, then they’ll need to be heated by electricity, and there’s no guarantee that electricity will come from renewable sources.
Although the UK’s dirtiest form of electricity generation – coal – has been on the decline, that gap has mostly been filled in by burning natural gas, which still releases about half the amount that coal does. While coal plummeted from 25 per cent to three per cent of the energy mix between 2015 and 2019, gas went up from 28 to 41 per cent. “You can’t build a low carbon energy strategy out of gas,” says Freer.
And nuclear is about to drop out of the energy mix too. Nuclear power plants – which are only slightly more carbon intensive than solar panels – currently supply 18 per cent of the UK’s energy. But by 2030, only one of the UK’s currently operational nuclear power stations will still be active: Sizewell B, which currently supplies around three per cent of the UK’s energy. Hinkley Point C, which is currently under construction and projected to come online in 2031, is expected to provide seven per cent of the UK’s electricity needs.
For Freer, this signals a big problem. Even if wind power continues to grow in popularity – and there’s every sign that it will – the UK will always need backup power plants. “Wind power is intermittent,” he says. “Nuclear power is always generating electricity.”
Batteries could provide a solution to our need for always-on energy production. Large-scale battery storage would let suppliers stock up on renewable energy and release it when the wind isn’t blowing. “Once you have cheap storage, then you can use all that variable power all the time,” says Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at Exeter University.
In January, the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy announced a £20 million initiative intending to fund large-scale energy storage solutions, but it’s not at all clear whether the UK’s storage capacity will scale up quickly enough. This could be partially remedied, Mitchell points out, by more flexible electricity demand that cuts down the amount of wasted energy generation that’s wasted, but that doesn’t solve the storage problem altogether.
Whatever happens, Mitchell is confident that our overall energy mix is only heading in one direction. “It’s always cheaper to take wind and solar, because they have zero marginal cost – so you always want to take wind and solar when it’s on,” she says. “The overall system, just because of the economics, is definitely decentralising and it’s a good thing for the environment and society – it’s going to be cheaper for everyone.”
Will things happen fast enough to meet the UK’s clean energy goals? In a swansong piece of legislation, Theresa May committed the UK to reaching net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050. Given our current trajectory, that might be a stretch. Of the 38.4 million licensed cars in the UK, only 226,000 of them are plug-in electric vehicles. The decarbonisation of heating, too, is far from resolved.
For Mitchell, this suggests that leaving things to market forces alone isn’t enough to secure a zero-carbon future quickly enough to meet the demands of climate change. A little – or a lot – of governmental nudging will be required. “The system is just inexorably moving that way, but it’s not moving that way quickly enough to meet those targets so it needs far more help from the government than we have.”
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