Q4 2019: The 100 years from coal to clean power

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London

Energy sector transitions are meant to be slow.1 

Power stations have long lifetimes and are expensive to replace, so it usually takes decades to shift the supply mix. The chart below shows how Britain’s power system is rewriting the rule book. The electricity generation mix changed more in the 2010s than in the previous ninety years combined.

Britain’s electricity generation mix over the last 100 years2

In previous decades there have been big shifts between fossil fuels, but not away from them. The chaos caused by the 1970s oil crises and the 1980s miners’ strikes saw huge swings between coal and oil, and expanding gas production in the North Sea drove a rapid switch from coal to gas in the 1990s. Overall reliance on fossil fuels has been very hard to shift though.

Previously, the fastest changes we had seen were in the 1960s and 1980s, both of which saw the share of fossil fuels fall by around 10% due to the growth of nuclear power. These changes were gradually reversed as nuclear went into decline and demand continued growing. Overall, between 1920 and 2010, fossil fuels barely loosened their grip, from 100% to 80% of electricity generated. Between 2010 and 2019 they halved to just 40%.

But has this radical change come at a price? Retail prices rose 3% faster than inflation over the 2010s, in part due to the growing pot of subsidies used to fund new renewable investment. For context though, this is half the rate of price rises seen during the 2000s; and has brought electricity prices back to their long-term average over the latter half of the 20th Century.

If this pace of change can be maintained, renewable sources could be providing more than half of Britain’s electricity by the end of this decade, and Britain’s power system could be practically carbon free.

The retail price of electricity in Britain (average across all sectors)3

1: E.G. see Vaclav Smil or Shell’s Energy Scenarios.

2: Data from BEIS, Digest of UK Energy StatisticsBP.

3: Data from BEIS, Digest of UK Energy StatisticsQuarterly Energy Prices.

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