By Lara Williams / Bloomberg Opinion
Did coal just make a comeback? For the first time ever last week, Britain had to call on emergency coal generation to keep the lights on, after keeping plants in reserve all winter.
It happened on March 7 as an Arctic blast put parts of the United Kingdom into a deep freeze. High demand, low winds and a lack of imports due to a general strike in France left National Grid ESO, the U.K.’s electricity grid operator, unable to maintain a safe cushion of spare capacity, forcing it to fire up two coal-fired contingency units. They were disconnected from the grid after the peak evening period, but the fact that they were used at all has been, for some, a source of dismay, as well as an opportunity to criticize net-zero policy, with one tweet describing renewables as a “flaky part-time employee.”
But there are a few things wrong with this view.
First, some perspective. Coal has delivered a vanishingly small proportion of Britain’s electricity over the past few years and even declined in 2022 to its lowest level in 266 years, according to figures compiled by Carbon Brief. The U.K. having to resort to coal is a sign of how intense pressures have been on the grid during the energy crisis. Due to the war in Ukraine, the U.K. delayed plans to shut down almost all of its coal plants by the end of 2022, but there remains a commitment to end coal generation by October 2024. So I would view last week as a one-off blip in an extreme scenario, rather than a de-facto return to coal.
Yet, many have used the event to make the case that renewables aren’t reliable. Fox News commentator Steve Milloy posed the question on Twitter: “Imagine the impossible — that the UK went net zero — what would Brits do? Freeze?”
Well, that question has been answered by a new report from the U.K. Climate Change Committee, the government advisory body on climate change. The answer? No. It’s entirely possible to have a net-zero electricity grid and keep the lights on. In fact, increasing the domestic supply of renewable energy while reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels is vital if the U.K. wants to maintain energy security.
The group used hour-by-hour modelling of Britain’s electricity system to illustrate what that future net-zero electricity grid could look like in 2035, including stress tests of how it would cope with extreme weather events and extended periods of wind drought, as demand increases by as much as 50 percent in the coming decades.
What the CCC came up with as a reliable supply mix looked like around 70 percent variable renewables, complemented by about 20 percent from inflexible generation; sources such as nuclear energy, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which take too long to ramp up and down in response to changes in energy demand and renewables output. The rest would come from low-carbon back-up sources, which could be hydrogen or natural gas paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Hydrogen and gas CCS would also be key during those periods of high demand and low renewable generation, as would a very small amount of unabated gas; about 2 percent annually, around the same as coal at the moment. Green hydrogen could serve as a sponge, with its production absorbing surplus supply during periods where wind, solar and nuclear creates too much output, which could then be wrung out when renewable generation runs short.
The U.K. has made some headway on decarbonization — 2022 saw wind generation rise by 25 percent and solar up by 10 percent — but further progress can’t be counted on, and it’s already falling behind. Despite an official pledge from the government to decarbonize Britain’s electricity generation by 2035, there’s been no detailed plan on how to achieve it.
There is ambition, as seen in the Energy Security Strategy published by the U.K. Government in 2022, which lays out objectives to install up to 50 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030 and deploy up to 24GW of nuclear capacity by 2050. But Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC, explained in a media briefing that although flexible low-carbon options like hydrogen and gas CCS were essential to making a renewables-based system work, a big policy gap around them exists.
More importantly, however, even if those policies were in place, Stark said that the U.K. “simply doesn’t have a regulatory system and planning regime that can deliver the infrastructure that we need.” Planning might seem fairly mundane but it is an important issue: Just two onshore wind turbines were installed last year in England, thanks to planning restrictions which amount to a de facto ban. Meanwhile, developers are facing delays of more than 15 years to connect their renewable energy projects to the grid, due to wider network upgrades that need to take place first.
A total of 222GW of renewables projects are in the queue for a grid connection in the U.K. as of December 2022, according to BloombergNEF. Part of the problem is that this also includes speculative and stalled projects which hog positions on the waitlist. National Grid ESO is seeking to tackle this issue by introducing a £54 billion ($65 billion) plan to get offshore wind connected to the grid faster, and new rules to prioritize projects that actually get built. Though there’s plenty of talk about subsidies at the moment in response to the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act, getting the U.K.’s planning, consenting and connection process flowing smoothly again could be more effective at unlocking financing by giving greater certainty to potential investors.
The critics are right that we can’t afford to lose energy security, but it’s also essential that we reach net zero; and electricity supply is a key component of that. The good news is that we now have evidence that they can be delivered hand-in-hand, and complement each other. The less good news is that while achieving a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 is possible, it’ll be a stretch. The government needs to start making up for lost time right now.
Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.
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