Renewables – let’s address reality

15th June 2020 | Commercial Energy

There’s more to claims of “record-breaking” periods of coal-free electricity generation in the UK than meets the eye. British electricity consumers may have noticed an announcement by the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) on 28 April that the ‘record’ of more than 18 days without any coal being burned to generate electricity in the United Kingdom, which had stood since the Victorian era, had been broken. ESO director Fintan Slye’s claim that at the time of “… the longest period of coal-free operation in Britain” was widely reported. ESO was back on 2 June 2020 stating that this “incredible coal-free run” now stood at 53 days and counting.

While this may imply a tautological truth that renewables are inexorably, seamlessly and dependably replacing fossil-fuel-base electricity supplies within the UK Grid, that’s not the case. Prior to the ‘record-breading’ period, coal’s contribution to UK power generation stood at only around 2 per cent. Coupled with that, the UK had experienced a very mild and calm seven-day period commencing on Thursday 23 April, which along with Covid-19 reduced UK electricity demand to around 18 per cent less than the seasonal average. At the same time, wind generation had virtually collapsed across the UK, and was to collapse totally on 3, 6, 7 and 8 May.


In spite of this reduced demand, throughout that week and in early May the country was dependent on imported power to keep the lights on and hospitals running. Three interconnectors to mainland Europe were supplying up to their maximum capability of 4,000MW – equivalent to more than three Torness power stations. In a random check I made in April, Scotland was importing more than 1,200MW, equivalent to a second Torness, to keep the becalmed country functioning as the Covi-19 spread was accelerating.

Through this ‘record’ period the UK has imported 10 per cent of its electricity from Europe. Much of this is coal-generated, so during this ‘record-setting’ UK electrical power was not ‘coal free’. Neither were gas, nuclear, solar and wind able to keep the lights on by themselves.

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