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Renewables reach third of UK power production as total electricity demand drops

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Ørsted's Walney Extension offshore wind farm, at 659 MW the largest in the world, helped push renewables to record production in the U.K. last year.
Source: MHI Vestas Offshore Wind

The output from renewable energy sources rose to a record high in the U.K. last year, reaching an estimated 33% of power production, while conventional power plants burned less fuel as overall demand for electricity in the country declined to the lowest level in a quarter-century.

An analysis of government and industry data by Carbon Brief, a London-based website, shows that low-carbon sources including nuclear contributed 53% of U.K. generation in 2018. At the same time, the share from fossil fuels dropped to 44% due to the continuing closure of coal-fired power plants.

The rising share of renewables, particularly new offshore wind farms, and lower per-capita electricity consumption have equally contributed to a drop in CO2 emissions from the power sector since demand peaked in 2005, helping to cut its carbon intensity even amid a growing economy and population, according to Carbon Brief deputy editor Simon Evans.

"The U.K. trend since 2005 breaks with the economic orthodoxy that a growing economy must be fuelled by rising electricity use," he wrote on the website. "Instead, the economy has continued to grow even as electricity generation has leveled off and then started to decline."

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In total, the country generated approximately 335 TWh of electricity in 2018, the lowest since 1994 and 63 TWh less than in 2005 — equivalent to more than twice the output of Hinkley Point C, the new nuclear power plant being built by Electricité de France SA in Somerset. Power generation output mostly rose throughout the last century but leveled off in the early 2000s and has been declining since 2005.

The decoupling of electricity demand and economic growth mirrors developments in other countries and is at least partly due to more energy-efficient homes and appliances, rising environmental consciousness among consumers, the shift from manufacturing to a service-based economy and rising power prices, Carbon Brief said. In the U.S., for example, electricity demand has remained flat for a decade.

According to Carbon Brief, power demand in the U.K. is likely to keep falling in the short term but could increase in the medium term as renewables — mainly wind and solar but also biomass, for example — continue to replace more flexible electricity sources and uptake of electric vehicles and heat pumps replaces fossil fuels in the transport and heating sectors.

Dramatic shift to renewables

Meanwhile, the energy system in the U.K. has shifted "dramatically" toward cleaner sources, mostly driven by a 16% increase in wind capacity. New offshore wind installations totaled more than 2 GW last year alone, according to industry group Renewable UK, and wind farms generated 58 TWh in 2018, more than triple the output from coal, according to the Carbon Brief analysis.

The transition to renewables is in line with other large European countries. In December 2018, German industry group BDEW estimated that renewable energy production last year went head-to-head with coal in the continent's largest economy. Research institute Fraunhofer ISE said Jan. 1 that its calculations showed net electricity production from renewables rose to make up 40% of the total in Germany in 2018, overtaking coal as the main energy source for the first time.

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While Germany is still debating a coal phaseout, the U.K. government will ban power stations from burning the fuel without using carbon-capture technology from 2025. Plant closures in anticipation of that date mean that electricity production from coal plants continued to fall last year, reaching 17 TWh.

Gas remained the largest source of U.K. power generation, accounting for 39%, but is expected to be overtaken by renewables by 2020, according to estimates released by the government last year.

Nuclear output fell to 65 TWh last year because of an extended shutdown at EDF's Hunterston plant. The fuel's share will likely decline from the current top spot because of retirements over the next few years. Carbon Brief said all but one of the U.K.'s existing nuclear plants will close by 2025 unless they receive lifetime extensions.

After several delays, EDF's new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point are expected to come online in the second half of the next decade. Several other nuclear projects are in planning, but a proposed 3.4-GW project by Japan's Toshiba Corp. was scrapped last November, and another Japanese conglomerate, Hitachi Ltd., was recently reported to consider abandoning plans for two other plants.