It’s been an eventful year for carbon-free energy in the UK. First, Great Britain went a week without coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Then the country fired (wound?) up the world’s largest offshore wind farm.
And on Monday, a new analysis claims that renewables generated more power in the UK than fossil fuels for three months, the first time that’s happened since 1882. While the news comes with an important caveat, it’s a sign of the radical change happening in the country that birthed the fossil fuel era.
Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate news and analysis site, published the striking new analysis. It shows that from July through September, UK renewables generated 29.5 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity while fossil fuels generated 29.1 TWh. The crossover was driven by a few factors, including shrinking demand as the grid becomes more efficient as well as the growth of renewable capacity and falling costs.
Coal has suffered the same fate in the UK as it has in other developed countries, with high costs making it an unattractive option to utilities. In a metaphor that’s a bit too on-the-nose in light of the Carbon Brief report, the cooling towers of what was once Europe’s most powerful coal plant came down in a controlled explosion over the weekend. The plant, known as Ferrybridge, has been shuttered since 2016 because its operator no longer saw it as economically feasible in the face of cheap renewables and natural gas.
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While a 0.4 TWh difference between renewable- and fossil fuel-generated electricity may not seem that impressive, it represents the electricity needs of hundreds of thousands of customers. And the context of where the UK electric generating system was just 10 years ago makes the transition all the more amazing. In the third quarter of 2009, the country generated 60.4 TWh of electricity from fossil fuels and only 5.7 TWh from renewables.
The Carbon Brief analysis shows that, overall, 40 percent of electricity in the UK in the third quarter of this year came from renewables. The biggest chunk was from wind, clocking in at 20 percent, in part due to the aforementioned hugenormous (technical term, I believe) Hornsea One wind farm that came online this summer. In addition, another 6 percent came from solar. But here’s the rub: 12 percent came from burning biomass and wood pellets. While the UK classifies biomass as renewable because the trees the pellets are made from can be replanted and suck up carbon dioxide from burning said pellets, there are a number of issues, includes whether forests are actually planted and allowed to regrow. Research suggests the timeframe to reap any benefits of wood pellets as “renewables” can be decades, according to an in-depth report from Climate Central.
Nuclear power also generated 19 percent of the total electricity in the UK and is an actual zero-carbon source of electricity. So even if we bump the wood pellets over the carbon-emitting side of the ledger, the UK still generated more carbon-free power from July through September than carbon-polluting power. As Carbon Brief notes, it’s “now a question of when—rather than if” the UK will go a whole year where renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels.
Not to be a dour climate journalist, but there are a few other caveats to just how big a deal this milestone is. The UK is responsible for just a shade over 1 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. And like the U.S., the biggest source of those emissions in transportation. So yes, the Carbon Brief analysis is Very Good News, especially coming from the country where the Industrial Revolution began. But it’s not the end of the road. Far from it, in fact, since there’s also a ton of work to be done to decarbonize the UK (and the rest of the world for that matter).