solar panels

UK electricity generation from solar edges past coal in 2016

Solar panels generated 5.2 per cent of the UK’s electricity demand over the past six months, according to a new analysis which also puts coal at just 4.7 per cent.

From April to September, solar power generated an estimated 6,964 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity while coal accounted for 6,342 GWh.

Solar also outstripped coal for 10 weeks in a row from 1 July, as revealed by the Carbon Brief web site which reports on climate science and energy policy.

The figures are consistent with earlier record highs with solar producing nearly a quarter of the UK’s total electricity for a brief period on 5 June 2016 and coal dropping from 20 per cent energy production in Spring 2015 to just six per cent this year. 

While solar generation would be expected to peak in the sunnier summer months and coal fall as demand is reduced compared to winter, the figures still reveal the shifts in the UK's energy mix.

The amount of solar deployed in the UK increased rapidly in 2015, while coal-fired power stations continued to close.

The Government has pledged to shut all polluting coal plants by 2025 as part of efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions - as long as new gas plants can be brought online.

Scotland is already one step ahead: its last coal plant shut down in March after 46 years in operation, while the country also boasted a brief period in August where all of its electricity needs were met by wind power. 

Much of the gap caused by closing coal plants has been filled by gas, figures from the Government for the second quarter of 2016 show, with gas rising from 30 to 45 per cent of total production.

The share of the UK's electricity coming from fossil fuels is falling, as increasing amounts of renewables come online and overall power demand falls, Carbon Brief said.

This spring, the amount of electricity generated by coal fell to zero at points for the first time since the 19th century.

A recent analysis by Aurora Energy Research suggests further progress can be easily made and that the UK could treble the amount of solar power on the system without pushing up costs.

Concerns have been raised about the costs of integrating intermittent renewables, such as solar panels which only generate electricity when the sun is shining, into the UK power market.

The industry analysis shows that the cost of handling variability and providing “back-up” to ensure the lights stay on adds just £1.30 per megawatt hour (MWh) of power provided - less than two per cent of the costs of solar of around £80 per MWh.

It suggests it would be relatively cheap to more than treble the amount of solar on the system from 11GW today to 40GW (gigawatts) by 2030, which would provide 10 per cent of the UK’s power.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) said the analysis supports expectations that solar could be the lowest-cost way of generating electricity by the 2020s and called on the Government to seize the agenda to drive clean energy forward.

Dr Benjamin Irons, a director at Aurora Energy Research and lead author of the report, said: Recent spectacular technological progress in renewable power generation puts the promise of cheap, low-carbon power within reach.

The challenge of integrating large volumes of renewables into the network in a way that provides reliable power to consumers and an attractive market for complementary generation technologies is the ‘last frontier’ in delivering the power system of tomorrow.

Our analysis shows that such integration is possible and surprisingly affordable: the UK could more than triple the amount of solar power on the system by 2030, with associated costs of integration and backup so low as to be dwarfed by the enormous cost savings anticipated from falling solar prices over the same period.

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