Pushed over the line by two coal-to-biomass conversions and continuing growth in offshore wind, the British renewable energy industry finally surpassed the capacity levels of its fossil fuel predecessors, with total capacity reaching 42 gigawatts (GW) in the third quarter, beating out the fossil fuel industry which only has 40.6 GW.
However, while on the surface of it this is good news, not everyone is as over the moon.
Renewables Surpass Fossil Fuels
The new figures were published on Tuesday by British electrical power company Drax Group in its Electric Insights report, produced independently by researchers from Imperial College, London, which investigated why power prices are at a ten-year high. In doing so, the report showed that British renewable energy capacity has increased to 42 GW, beating out fossil fuels which now sits at 40.6 GW.
There are a number of factors going into the rise of renewable energy generation capacity in Britain, including the fact that a third of fossil fuel generating capacity has retired over the past five years — while, at the same time, lower technology costs have helped boost renewable energy technologies including wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and others.
Specifically, and unsurprisingly, wind provides the bulk of renewable energy capacity feeding into the British system, with 20 GW — including 45% of the globe’s offshore wind energy capacity. Solar came in second with 13 GW worth of capacity — including almost a million rooftop solar power systems across the country — followed well behind by biomass with 3.2 GW. But it was biomass that Drax highlighted as playing an “important role in helping to tip the balance from fossil fuels to renewables” following the completion of two coal-to-biomass conversions during the third quarter.
“Phasing out fossil fuels has become an economic imperative as well as an environmental one, as clean technologies such as new onshore wind and solar are cheaper than gas or coal,” said RenewableUK’s Head of External Affairs Luke Clark. “Any Government around the world which is serious about putting consumers first and tackling climate change will understand the logic of prioritising renewables. In the UK, wind is leading the way, generating half our country’s renewable power. Offshore wind alone is set to generate one-third of our electricity by 2030, forming the backbone of our new clean energy system.”
Rising Power Prices
The report also found that the increase in British power prices is a result of several factors, including the impact of the contentious Brexit decision as well as currency devaluation. However, another factor was the need to balance the power system, which added 6% to wholesale prices.
“The cost of balancing the system has doubled in the last four years,” explained Dr Iain Staffell from Imperial. “The amount of flexible generation on the system is a key driver. Balancing costs rise when the output from flexible generators such as gas, coal, biomass and hydro, falls below 10 GW.
“Having a ‘brittle’ power system with limited flexibility will be more expensive to control. More flexible generation, storage and demand-side response will be critical in minimising system costs in the future.”
“More renewables are crucial for reducing carbon emissions and helping us to meet our climate targets – but flexible, lower carbon generation, is also clearly vital for controlling the costs of maintaining a stable, low carbon power system,” added Andy Koss, Drax Power CEO. “The IPCC’s report recognised that in order to meet our climate change targets, up to 85% of global power generation needs to come from renewables by 2050. This means the remainder will have to be provided by flexible sources, which can support the system and help to keep costs down – such as biomass, hydro, pumped storage as well as high-efficiency gas.”
Apples & Pears
However, while there is obvious good news in renewable energy’s capacity levels exceeding those of fossil fuel generation technologies, it may not paint the whole picture.
Léonie Greene, the Director of Advocacy & New Markets for the UK Solar Trade Association, pointed out that it looks as if Drax has not accounted for load factors, and that it is very misleading to directly compare fossil fuel and renewable energy capacity, considering that the methodology for assessing capacity is unique and distinct. Specifically, renewable energy capacity presents only a snapshot of peak output — which, for instance, with solar, relies on a certain time of day, the temperature, angle, etc — which differs wildly from a gas plant or a nuclear station, which needs no such circumstances to match its peak capacity.
“It is something of a milestone that the capacities of renewables and fossil fuels align, but it is vital to understand that does not mean they are generating equivalent amounts of power,” Léonie Greene explained via email. “Ambient renewables operate at optimum capacity under prime conditions, and conditions vary.
“There is still a long way to go before renewables can match fossil fuels for output and its important this milestone doesn’t obscure that reality. It’s also important to understand that solar has been shut out from competing in clean power auctions and rooftop solar has been disadvantaged in the tax system so there has been very weak growth this year. We will celebrate when the Government provides a level playing field for solar power both in terms of tax treatment, where fossil fuels have notable advantages, and fair market access.”
In other words, renewable energy technologies like wind and solar will need to boast far greater capacity levels than fossil fuels to comfortably boast that renewables is outperforming fossil fuels.
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