Wind turbines in Cornwall UK

UK grid on track for fossil fuel-free periods by 2025

Image credit: Dreamstime

The National Grid Electricity Systems Operator (ESO) has reported that by mid-decade the electricity system will be able to be supported entirely by zero-carbon sources, rather than having to keep fossil fuels on line to retain stability.

This could see the British grid powered entirely without fossil fuels in just four years’ time. At present, the grid must draw constantly on conventional power plants. Even if demand could be met entirely by nuclear and renewables, fossil fuels such as natural gas must be kept on line to provide stability to the grid.

This could change if the National Grid ESO can find new ways to draw inertia (in this context, meaning energy in the turbines of power plants which help stabilise the grid) from alternative sources, such as hydropower stations or repurposed gas turbines. It reported that by 2025 it could be ready to have periods in which it does not draw from fossil fuels at all, meeting a target set in 2019.

In May 2020, although there was potential for near-100 per cent zero-carbon electricity, the Grid control room pulled back some wind and hydropower and replaced it with gas and biomass in order to provide sufficient inertia. This meant that 83 per cent of power was drawn from zero-carbon sources.

“We’re confident that by 2025 we will have periods of 100 per cent zero-carbon electricity, with no fossil fuels used to generate power in Great Britain,” said Fintan Slye, National Grid ESO executive director. “The growth in renewable sources of power, with record levels of wind and solar, means there will be enough zero-carbon generation to meet demand.”

“A key challenge is ensuring the electricity system is ready to accommodate that power. Our engineers are deploying innovative, world-first approaches to transform how the power system operators, such as removing the need to draw on fossil fuel-based generation for critical stabilising properties.”

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the energy ministers, commented: “Today’s report shows that the industry and the public’s hard work to drive up renewables is paying off and we are on the cusp of achieving periods of 100 per cent zero-carbon electricity generation with no fossil fuels used.”

“There’s still some way to go, which is why we are powering forward with our ambitious commitments to increase renewable power across the UK and invest in new, green technologies.”

The share of the UK power supply provided by fossil fuels has been overall falling as renewable infrastructure expands and costs fall. Coal’s share of generation has fallen from 25 per cent just five years ago to 1.6 per cent in 2020, which marked a record 68-day tun without the source.

In April, the National Grid ESO announced that a combination of low power demand and strong sun and wind saw the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the grid fall to its lowest recorded level (39g per unit). Last year, electricity generation from renewables overtook fossil fuels for the first time, in part thanks to below-average demand associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

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