Is the Fossil Fuel Age Finally drawing to a Close?

More and more people are realising that the threat of global heating is indisputable. Global concern is building as we all realise the implications if we fail to cut carbon emissions. With this greater understanding, action is being taken to address climate change on many different fronts. The era of the hydrocarbon which saw mankind through the second stage of the industrial revolution is drawing to a close as a new global energy reality emerges. History shows us that the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones and it looks set to be the same for fossil fuels.

A report published by the Carbon Brief website revealed that Energy produced by the UK’s renewable sector outperformed fossil fuel plants on a record 137 days in 2019 to help the country’s energy system record its greenest year yet.

Renewable energy from wind, solar, hydro and biomass projects grew by 9% last year and was the UK’s largest electricity source in March, August, September and December. Figures issued by the National Grid showed that wind farms, hydro plants, solar and nuclear energy alongside clean power imported by sub-sea cables delivered 48.5% of the UK’s electricity in 2019. In comparison fossil fuels only generated 43% of the UK’s electricity.  The rise of renewables in 2019 helped drive generation from coal and gas plants down by 6% from the year before and 50% lower from the start of the decade. The National Grid confirmed that “low-carbon” electricity including energy from renewables and nuclear plants actually made up more than half the UK’s energy mix for the first time last year.

National Grid CEO John Pettigrew told Sky News:

“2019 is a massively historic milestone in that it’s the first time ever in the UK that we’ve had more electricity produced from zero carbon fuels than from fossil fuels. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a gradual shift away from fossil fuels. So, in 2009, about 30% of electricity in the UK was produced by coal but what’s been happening over the last decade is a move towards wind and solar as well as zero carbon electricity from Europe being important into the UK as well.”

In fact, the number of coal-free days has accelerated from the first 24-hour period in 2017 to 21 days in 2018 and 83 days last year.

According to a new report by energy market analyst EnAppSys renewables are on course to outstrip fossil fuels as the primary source of power in the UK during 2020 building on the success of 2019.

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The study forecasts that wind, solar and other forms of renewable generation will generate 121.3 terawatt hours of electricity during 2020 compared with 105.6 terawatt hours from coal- and gas-fired power stations.

EnAppSys director Paul Verrill said:

“With the moratorium on onshore wind and reductions in capital cost of offshore wind farms, it is likely that more of these offshore projects will come on stream in future years, which will drive even higher levels of renewable output.”

Improvements in the electrical transmission infrastructure have also increased the contribution of renewable energy to the UK fuel mix.

If you go back to 2018, gas was responsible for providing 37.6% of the total amount of electricity in the UK while renewables accounted for 31.2% and nuclear generation supplied 19.9%. Imports provided 6.3% of electricity while coal supplied 5%.

The report also stated that it was the rise in the number of offshore wind farms that were commissioned or entered full operation during 2018 that drove the increase in renewables generation. Added to that solar generation has also climbed from 81.0TWh in 2015 to 113.5TWh last year.

Despite the UK’s low-carbon electricity production doubling over the last 10 years and the 2019 record, growth slowed sharply in the last year of the decade due to a string of outages at the UK’s ageing nuclear power plants. Carbon Brief’s report warned this could slow progress in the years ahead.

Simon Evans, the author of Carbon Brief’s report, said:

“Our analysis shows that rapid gains in decarbonising the power sector can’t be taken for granted and won’t just continue to magically happen forever. The government’s seemingly ambitious target to roll out 40GW of offshore wind by 2030 won’t happen without policies to back it up and it may not be enough on its own to meet UK climate goals, without contributions from onshore wind, solar or further new nuclear.”

Audrey Gallacher, Energy UK’s interim chief executive, said the report was a “stark reminder” that the energy industry must go “much further and faster” to help meet the UK’s climate target. The UK has pledged to create a carbon-neutral economy by cutting emissions to net zero by 2050. This means the UK must only emit as much carbon as it is able to capture and store.

In order to meet the UK’s rising need for clean electricity for transport and heating there needs to be a huge increase in low-carbon generation.

Audrey Gallacher went on to say:

“The amount of low-carbon power produced has doubled over the last decade but we need to go above and beyond that to keep pace with our climate change targets, especially with overall demand set to increase, rather than falling as it has done in recent years. This underlines the urgency of increasing all forms of low-carbon generation and why we need to see the government’s energy white paper as soon as possible, with action and policies that can enable the required investment and innovation to make this happen.”

Though levels of coal-fired energy generation have slumped 89% while levels of renewable generation have grown since 2012, gas-fired output has remained relatively static. Wind will continue to be the primary source of renewable generation having produced a record high share of the renewables mix.

In January this year the Guardian newspaper announced that they would no longer be accepting advertising from oil and gas companies in a strong move to support the campaign against climate change. They are the first major global news organisation to institute an outright ban on taking money from companies that extract fossil fuels. The ban will apply to any business primarily involved in extracting fossil fuels, including many of the world’s largest polluters.

The company’s acting chief executive, Anna Bateson, and the chief revenue officer, Hamish Nicklin, said in a joint statement:

 “Our decision is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.”

They went on to say that the response to global heating was the “most important challenge of our times”.

The campaign group Greenpeace were pleased with the move.

Mel Evans, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK said:

“This is a watershed moment, and the Guardian must be applauded for this bold move to end the legitimacy of fossil fuels.  Oil and gas firms now find themselves alongside tobacco companies as businesses that threaten the health and wellbeing of everyone on this planet. Other media outlets, arts and sports organisations must now follow suit and end fossil fuel company advertising and sponsorship.”

As we are already seeing in Europe, the demand for hydrocarbon will be  driven by declining renewable energy costs, government policies, new technologies, and companies’ shifts in strategies to prepare for the new energy age.  Major structural changes in fossil fuel supply, demand, energy mix and prices will happen as a result.

It’s worth mentioning that since 2010 a contributing factor to the uptake of solar PV, has been that costs have fallen by 80%, while at the same time more mature technologies, like onshore wind, have seen costs fall about 30%.

Research by Wood Mackenzie, a global energy, chemicals, renewables, metals, mining research and consultancy group, predicts that after 2035 the increase in the adoption of renewable generation and electrified transport will make them the default choice across many energy systems around the world. They foresee that half of all new power plants constructed globally will be either solar or wind, or a hybrid combination with storage and on top of this 50% of all additional miles travelled by road will use an electric vehicle.

There is no doubt that we have now entered the era of the renewable energy resource where zero-emission electricity is generated via near unlimited inputs from solar radiation, wind, tides and hydrogen. We are living in a time when cutting-edge, smart electric grids, utility-scale storage, and electric self-driving vehicles powered by everything from lithium-ion batteries to hydrogen fuel cells will be critical elements of this historic energy transition.

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