Q3 2016: Moving towards coal-free electricity

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

Britain’s electricity was completely coal-free for nearly six days over the last quarter. Coal plants have been pushed off the system by competition from gas, nuclear and renewables.

May the 5th 2016 was a historic day, the first time since 1881 that Britain burnt no coal to produce its electricity. Far from being a one- off, this has continued to become the norm over summer.

Coal plant utilisation has fallen to its lowest ever levels, producing just 7% of their maximum capacity – less than half the productivity of Britain’s solar panels over the quarter. Coal output normally swings with the seasons, falling in summer when demand (and gas prices) are at their lowest, and when plants go offline for their annual maintenance.

A quarter of Britain’s coal stations shut down over the last 12 months due to clean air legislation or to stem their financial losses. The plants which remain still ran with utilisation around 30 percentage points lower than in previous years.

After five years being cheaper, generating electricity from coal is now more expensive than from gas. While international gas prices have been falling for the last two years, so has the price of coal, and the switch is largely due to the UK’s Carbon Price Floor, which rose to £18/TCO2 last year. Without that boost over the (much lower) EU carbon price, gas would still be around 20% more expensive than coal (per MWh output) and emissions would undoubtedly be higher.

While very little coal has been needed during the summer months, some fear that the system will find it harder to cope during times of winter stress without these dispatchable plants.

Average utilisation of nuclear and fossil plants:

The cost of generating 1 MWh of electricity, based on fuel prices, plant efficiencies and the cost of carbon emissions:

Authors: Dr Iain StaffellProfessor Richard GreenDr Rob Gross and Professor Tim Green

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