Renewable electricity overtakes fossil fuels in the UK for the first time

A couple of days after the famous Ferrybridge power station cooling towers were razed to the ground, it was announced that, in the third quarter of 2019, for the first time history renewable energy generated more electricity than fossil fuel power stations in the United Kingdom.

The U.K’s wind farms, solar panels, biomass and hydro plants outstripped coal, oil and gas during the months of July, August and September, producing 29.5 terawatts (TWh), compared with just 29.1TWh, according to Carbon Brief.

The new milestone confirms predictions made by the National Grid that 2019 will be the first year since the industrial revolution that zero-carbon electricity – renewables and nuclear – overtakes gas and coal-fired power. New offshore wind farms have helped to take renewables past fossil fuels in a crucial tipping point in Britain’s Energy transition.

Less than 10 years ago fossil fuels made up four-fifths of the country’s electricity, which was split between gas and coal. However, the recent analysis undertaken by Carbon Brief shows that coal-fired power made up less than 1% of all electricity generated. This has resulted in British coal plants, such as Ferrybridge, which has dominated the Yorkshire skyline for around half a century, shutting down ahead of the 2025 ban. By next spring just four coal plants will remain in the UK.

Nuclear made up less than a fifth of the UK’s electricity in the last quarter, while wind power is the UK’s strongest source of renewable energy. The opening of wind farm schemes almost doubled the 2,100MW worth of offshore capacity which began powering homes in 2018.

Luke Clark of Renewable UK, stated the industry hopes to treble the size of its offshore wind sector by 2030 to generate more than a third of the UK’s electricity.

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How the National Grid tripped up

The UK National Grid’s vulnerability to unforeseen circumstances was no better demonstrated last Friday when millions of homes – mainly in London and the South East – were affected by a power cut.

Up until then, most of us in the United Kingdom thought that this sort of problem only occurred in other less well-developed nations, unless, of course, you are old enough to remember the blackouts of the 1970s.

So why did the outage occur?

Just as people were clocking off work and looking forward to the weekend, two power stations disconnected simultaneously, both of which were completely separate and coincidental incidents.

The gas-generated Little Bedford plant was the first to go down at 4.58pm and then Hornsea Windfarm in the North Sea followed two minutes later.

As renewable energy cannot be generated on demand (no-one has the ability to make the wind blow, after all), there was a shortfall of available power on the grid.

The National Grid runs at a frequency of 50Hz, and when supply falls and demand for energy remains high, the frequency drops, in this case to 48.9Hz.

Drops in frequency cause substantial infrastructure damage and to safeguard against this an automated system shuts down part of the grid to cut demand, which in turn increases frequency back up.

The big problem lies with the demand cutting process. If automated, why is it automated to shut down hospitals, like the one in Ipswich and key transport hubs such as Clapham Junction in South London?

A government investigation has now been launched into the incident, the first of its kind since 2008, and the National Grid must review and report to OFGEM.

One of the obvious conclusions to draw from this is that the power network has little resilience, especially when it goes wrong at 5pm on a Friday afternoon.