Q3 2016: The quarter’s headlines

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

This issue focusses on the period July to September 2016 and looks at the rise of clean energy, how it has halved CO2 emissions in the last five years, and the impacts this is having.

For the first time, low-carbon energy sources have produced more than half of Britain’s electricity, fuelled by the dramatic rise of renewable energy. Wind, solar and biomass have grown to supply 20% this quarter.

Combined with renewed competition from gas as fuel prices fall, this has pushed coal almost completely off the system. This time four years ago coal supplied 38% of Britain’s electricity; this quarter year it was just 3%. Coal provided a smaller share than either wind, solar or biomass, a symbolic moment in the transition towards clean energy.

As a result, per-unit carbon emissions from electricity consumption are at their lowest ever. Each unit of electricity now contains less than half the carbon it did four years ago, falling to a low of 221 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour. This pace of decarbonisation is a welcome surprise, coming well ahead of the UK’s legal requirements to reduce emissions.

The rise of intermittent renewables is dramatically changing the way the electricity system works. The operating patterns of conventional plants are having to change, and the ‘breathing space’ for flexible plants is being eroded during times of low demand and high renewable output. This is being seen in wholesale market prices, with this quarter seeing both the highest price for several years (£802/MWh) when supply was tight during the September heatwave, and an all-time low price of –£99/MWh due to surplus renewables.

Rising low-carbon generation, falling coal and emissions and volatile prices – is this the ‘new normal’ for British electricity?

The share of low-carbon and coal generation over the last six years, and the average carbon content of electricity:

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

Live Grid Data