Fossil fuel use on the UK’s power grid fell to an all-time low during the Christmas holiday season. Analysts believe that this is further evidence of the ongoing renewables revolution on British electricity generation over the past decade.
Data from Drax Electric Insights showed that just before midnight on the 29th of December, coal and gas were providing just 6% of electricity. Natural gas generated 17GW of electricity, while no coal was being burned for generation at this time.
From the afternoon of 23 December 2020 to the afternoon of 29 December 2020 for a period of 6 days no coal was burned making 25 December 2021 the second coal-free Christmas Day Britain has experienced, after 2020’s.
That having been said, renewables were responsible for delivering the UK’s greenest Christmas yet in 2021.
“Renewables generated 24.19 GW, 65 % of the country’s entire electricity needs, while fossil fuels were at a new record low.”
The milestone reached just before midnight on the 29th of December happened as fossil fuels were marginalised by huge contributions from renewable sources. Gusty weather meant that wind turbines were generating 15.62GW of electricity, 55.32% of Britain’s needs. At the same time, biomass plants (Drax operates the UK’s largest biomass plant) were generating 2.34GW of electricity (8.27%) and hydro installations 0.3GW (1.05%). This takes the total contribution from renewables to 65% with nuclear contributing another 24%. Solar PV was not generating any electricity as the milestone was reached during the night.
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The news of this milestone emphasised the dramatic shift in the power mix over the last decade. At the same time a decade ago, fossil fuels were producing 18.78GW of electricity to the grid, accounting for 58.79% of all generation.
Indeed, green power dominated the grid mix over the 2021 Christmas period. During the seven days from Christmas Eve, the average carbon intensity of the power grid dropped to just 125g of CO2 per kWh which Is less than half the current average and 75 per cent lower than the same period in 2012 when the carbon intensity was 464g/kWh.
However, if the UK is to stay on track in order to reach net zero, the Climate Change Committee, says the carbon intensity of UK electricity must fall to 50g of CO2 per kWh by the end of this decade and reach just 2g of CO2 by 2050.
To achieve this a further major expansion in renewable power will be needed across the UK. Earlier in December 2021, ministers opened a £285m auction for a new fleet of offshore wind farms capable of powering eight million homes.
Though the growth of renewables and the demise of fossil fuels is going in the right direction, the UK’s electricity system was dirtier in 2021 than 2020. According to Carbon Brief’s provisional analysis, in the year to 22nd December 2021, the average carbon intensity of the grid was 187g CO2/kWh, which is up modestly from the green record of 181g set in 2020. They believe that this minor setback can be attributed to the extraordinary circumstances of 2020. Strict lockdowns held during the pandemic led to much of the economy being frozen for months and depressed electricity demand. On top of this historically low wind speeds across Europe also dampened renewable generation in 2021.
According to the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) the grid did see some green landmarks in 2021. Due to high levels of wind and solar power, the carbon intensity of the grid fell to its lowest level yet at just 39gCO2/kWh on Easter Monday, 5th April.
Two more records toppled on 21st of May. Between 2am and 3am, wind turbines contributed the highest percentage of the UK’s electricity yet at 62.5%. As the windy day progressed wind generation peaked at an all-time high of 17.7GW between 3.30pm and 4.30pm. Britain’s wind turbines were generating enough electricity to power 7.8 million kettles!
The UK has also had an excellent green start to 2022. According to the ESO, New Year’s Day saw the carbon intensity of the grid once again dipping to 39g/CO2/kWh matching the record set in April 2021. This was made possible by huge contributions from zero-carbon sources. Taken together, wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and nuclear contributed 85.2% of the country’s power.