Q3 2017: Importing electricity, exporting emissions?

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

Imports of electricity into Britain are at record highs: 9% of the electricity we used in July and August was generated overseas. 

Debates around energy imports normally focus on oil from the Middle East or gas from Russia1; however, electricity from Europe is becoming ever more significant. In Q3, Britain sourced 5.6 TWh of electricity from abroad, enough to power 7.2 million homes. 60% of this came from France, 30% from the Netherlands and 10% from the island of Ireland. 

Even though a smaller share comes from Ireland and the Netherlands, they rely heavily on fossil fuels. So much so that Britain’s imports had a 30% higher carbon intensity than locally generated power (314 vs 245 g/kWh over the last twelve months). It is unclear whether these imports actually raised global CO2 emissions though. We could not have increased output from wind, solar, biomass and nuclear instead of importing; the extra electricity would likely have come from coal and gas. 

Imports are expected to become a larger part of the mix in future as more links to France, Norway and Denmark are built. National Grid anticipate that we could import 10–24% of our electricity in just five years’ time. We need to ensure this supports the continuing decarbonisation of electricity, rather than simply ‘offshoring’ our emissions. 

Britain’s dependence on imported electricity (left). The carbon intensity of British and imported electricity (top-right). The source of Britain’s imported electricity (bottom-right). 

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

1: Note that Britain does not directly import any gas from Russia; the majority comes from Norway and Qatar according to  BEIS.

Live Grid Data