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Britain is poised to see a record increase in gas-fired generation this year, as it turns to natural gas to replace plummeting coal power.
The transmission system operator, the National Grid, showed last week that the country’s security of supply would be stable this winter, even as coal generation nosedives.
The Nationals Grid’s “winter outlook” outlines its forecast percentage surplus of electricity generation over peak demand during the coming winter. The Nationals Grid reported last week that generation would exceed peak demand 6.6%, which it described as “tight but manageable”, and a slight increase over the previous year.
The National Grid attributed this stability to an increase in supply of ageing coal generation, plus an outage in electricity exports.
But the bigger picture in the UK fuel mix is a collapse in coal, and a corresponding surge in natural gas, as shown two weeks ago in energy statistics published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.
Figure 1. Plummeting role of coal in UK electricity supply (TWh)
Gas-fired power supply is poised to see a record annual increase this year, beating the so-called “dash for gas” years in the 1990s, and a coal-gas switch in the early days of the European carbon market.
In the first six months this year, the supply of gas-fired generation increased by 22.7 terawatt hours (TWh), year on year. That compares with a record annual increase since 1998 of 24.6 TWh (in 2007). Favourable gas prices mean the full year 2016 should beat that.
Figure 2. UK heads for record, year-on-year increase in gas-fired power supplied in 2016 (TWh)
The return to gas is all about the decommissioning of coal plants, including two in March, as these run foul of pollution controls, plus improving gas economics, with gas-fired generation now cheaper than coal.
The gas revival raises a question mark over the country’s long-term commitment to renewable generation, after a rapid build-out of onshore wind and solar generation. Britain has frozen support for these mature renewable power technologies since capacity auctions held last year, with none further planned.
Britain’s statutory adviser on climate change, the Climate Change Committee, earlier this year criticized this lull in support for onshore wind and large-scale solar, given the country’s ambitious mid-term climate targets, to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 57% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, from 38% below today.