Britain will generate more of its electricity this year from zero carbon sources than fossil fuels for the first time since the industrial revolution, according to a forecast.
National Grid, the company responsible for balancing energy supply and demand in the UK, said 47.9 per cent of the country’s electricity came from non-polluting sources — hydro, nuclear, solar and wind — in the first four months of the year compared with 46.7 per cent from gas and coal.
It expects the trend to continue, making 2019 the first year that zero carbon sources will play the dominant role in electricity generation since coal usage became widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Despite reaching this milestone, however, energy analysts warn that significant challenges remain if the UK is to meet its newly adopted net zero carbon emission target for 2050, including how to address the sizeable role of gas as a source of electricity generation and for heating buildings.
Gas accounted for the biggest single source of electricity generation last year, at 39 per cent. Gas plants that can be fired up quickly are relied on to provide power when renewables such as solar and wind are not generating because of weather conditions.
“Gas, and particularly the decarbonisation of gas, is probably the biggest challenge [to meet the 2050 target],” said John Pettigrew, chief executive of National Grid.
Supporters of nuclear generation also argue that the government needs to make swift decisions about if, and how, further plants can be built to replace ageing reactors.
Nuclear supplied nearly a fifth of Britain’s electricity last year yet all but one of Britain’s current fleet of nuclear plants will be retired by 2030. Only one new plant, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is under construction after several other planned projects were cancelled over cost concerns.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, a lobby group, said: “There is a clear and urgent need to replace our ageing fleet.”
Richard Howard, research director at energy consultancy Aurora, said it is possible to approach the 2050 target using various scenarios, for example by building more renewables and using battery technology and subsea cables that import low carbon electricity from countries such as Norway. He added that gas could still be used if carbon capture and storage technology were available to deal with the emissions.
But each scenario throws up “some challenges and questions about feasibility”, according to Mr Howard. If the UK is to rely predominantly on renewables, for instance, policymakers will need to answer “essential” questions such as “what is the thing that turns on when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining on a cold, dark Tuesday evening in February”, he said.
This year’s milestone will be achieved because of the rapid growth of renewables in the past 10 years, particularly wind, but crucially also because of the sharp decline of coal, which the government wants to stamp out entirely by 2025. This year has seen several records broken for the longest consecutive period without the use of any coal, the most recent ending at 18 days.
The government has promised to publish a white paper on energy this year.