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Zero-carbon power outstrips fossil fuels for 1st time in Britain

Electricity generated from renewables and other zero-carbon sources eclipsed fossil fuels for the first time in Britain during the past 12 months, making 2019 the cleanest year on record for the country's energy system.

Data released by grid operator National Grid PLC shows renewables and nuclear power plants, as well as electricity imports from abroad, made up 48.5% of Britain's electricity in 2019. That stacks up against 43% from fossil fuels, chiefly gas, excluding 8.5% generated from burning biomass and waste.

Coal generation, in particular, has dropped drastically in the U.K. over the past decades: the fuel made up 75% of the power mix in 1990, but contributed 2.1% last year. In June, no coal plant in the country produced electricity for more than 18 days — the longest period ever — shattering a record set a month earlier.

"As we enter a new decade, this truly is a historic moment and an opportunity to reflect on how much has been achieved," National Grid CEO John Pettigrew said in a statement.

Although coal plants have stayed afloat thanks in part to capacity payments, the government wants to phase out unabated coal generation by 2025. In the meantime a carbon price, which fossil generators in Britain have had to pay on top of the EU's emissions scheme, has already seen a raft of closures.

Electricité de France SA shut its 2,000-MW Cottam Power Station in September 2019 and two others — SSE PLC's 1,510-MW Fiddlers Ferry Power Station and RWE AG's 1,560-MW Aberthaw B ST — are scheduled to close by the end of March.

That will leave Britain with only three coal-fired power stations, operated by EDF, Uniper SE and Drax Group PLC, which has plans to convert its last two coal units to gas. Energetický a prumyslový holding a.s. operates another plant in Northern Ireland, which does not share a grid with the rest of the U.K.

Last year, wind, solar and hydropower generated 26.5% of Britain's electricity, with 16.8% from nuclear reactors and 8% from imports. The U.K. regularly imports cheap nuclear power from neighboring France, but also operates subsea interconnectors to the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland.

To reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, enshrined in law last year, the Conservative government has promised to increase offshore wind power capacity to 40 GW by 2030. The U.K. already leads the world in offshore wind development and contracts awarded in the latest capacity tender dropped below the market price of electricity.

But experts have warned that reaching the net-zero goal will require additional support for onshore renewables, especially to make up for the closure of aging nuclear plants over the coming decade. Subsidies for onshore wind and solar were phased out several years ago and have led to a slowdown in new development.