Coal generation made up less than 6% of power generation in Q2 of 2016, compared to 20% at the same time last year-evidence of the significant shift in energy policy to encourage low-carbon generation. According to data from BEIS (Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy), coal output fell by 71% from 15.9TWh in Q2 of 2015 to just 4.6TWh due to reduced capacity caused by the closure of Ferrybridge C and Longannet as well as the conversion of a unit at Drax from coal to biomass during the previous year.
Coal generation across 2015 was at its lowest since the 1950s because low-carbon policies have resulted in tough market conditions for coal-fired power stations. A total of 8GW of coal capacity has closed since 2010 and the closure of Logannet in 2016, which had been generating for 46 years, was the last source of coal generation in Scotland where renewables now make up the largest source of power, higher than both nuclear generation (33%) and fossil fuel generation (28%).
This fall in coal output was largely replaced by gas, which increased by 51% from 11.9TWh in Q2 2015 to 35.4TWh for Q2 2016 and brought about a 1.3% fall in CO2 emissions for the quarter. Gas generation emits less carbon per kWh of electricity generated than coal and therefore has comparatively lower carbon taxes to contend with. This, combined with an increase in global supplies of gas means it is a more competitive source of electricity. Coal output reportedly fell to zero on several occasions during May – the first time since 1882.
Capacity levels increased for both wind and solar although, overall, renewables output remained broadly unchanged at around 25% because average wind speeds fell and there were some outages at the biomass units at Drax. Solar panel installation has recently increased to reach 11GW of capacity but, as subsidies have now come to an end, this trend is not set to continue.
With 15GW left of coal plants still available to operate, a consultation on their future is planned for Spring 2017 since the government’s announcement that all UK coal-fired power stations will close by 2025 “as long as security of electricity supply is maintained”. The decision on coal will contribute to a new climate change and energy policy, designed to meet the UK’s target of a 57% reduction in emissions against 1990 levels by 2032. The recent decision to go ahead with the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant is the starting point for this. The government will face the need to balance security of supply with climate change targets while at the same time trying to keep control of costs to customers.