Can renewables meet the UK’s rising electricity demand?
While the UK’s committed to reducing its reliance on coal, electricity consumption is predicted to rise 14% by 2030. We consider whether Britain’s renewables can meet much of this new demand and reduce harmful emissions.
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To date, Britain has been extremely successful in decarbonising power, with emissions falling 44% since 1990, as old – mainly coal-fired – plant has been decommissioned. However, this has happened against a backdrop of falling demand – and things could be about to change.
National Grid’s latest Future Energy Scenarios Report predicts that, by 2030, an increase of electric vehicles (EVs) could lead to peak demands of between 5 and 8.1 gigawatts (GW). These figures – taking into account residential and non-residential charging – represent an increase of between 9% and 14% compared to the peak demand of 57GW in 2017. The figures also allow for the growth of smart-charging technologies and demand side flexibility.
What’s more, the 11 million EVs predicted to be using Britain’s roads by 2030 is expected to more than triple by 2040. Even though EVs provide a mobile storage solution that helps deliver extra capacity, their numerical growth still requires a significant increase in electricity generation. And, with the plans for new nuclear capacity seemingly in disarray, the majority of this extra capacity will probably need to come from renewables.
Are demand expectations compatible with UK emissions goals?
The UK’s generators will have to meet the demand for additional electricity in the run up to 2030 while operating within even tougher emissions targets.
On May 2nd 2019, the Committee on Climate Change advocated that the Government should legislate for a zero-emissions future by 2050. And by June 12th, departing Prime Minister Theresa May sought to boost her legacy by targeting net zero greenhouse gases by that date.
According to Julian Leslie, Head of National Control at the National Grid Electricity System Operator, moving to a net zero carbon system will involve “fundamentally changing the way we think about electricity. At the moment we dispatch generation to meet demand, but at some point we need to switch that around, to dispatch demand to meet generation.”
Even with such a dramatic level of change, plus greater amounts of battery storage now coming online, the country will still need new generating capacity. The bulk of this is predicted to come from:
New onshore wind
In March 2019, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced that onshore wind generated 9.1% of the nation’s electricity in 2018. However, the ineligibility of onshore wind for Contracts for Difference (CfD) auctions – as well as, arguably, unfavourable planning regulations – makes deployment difficult.
Even so, RenewableUK – the trade association for organisations involved in UK wind and marine renewables – says the country must invest in replacing older wind farms to achieve its carbon targets.
New offshore wind
Renewable UK also predicts that offshore wind power generation is set to increase by a factor of almost four. This would come close to providing a third of the electricity required in the UK by 2030.
Solar Photovoltaic (PV)
In October 2018, the total installed solar capacity in the UK stood at 13.05GW. Predictions for its growth are difficult, as the March 2019 removal of the Feed in Tariff subsidy has made its return on investment uncertain. Naturally, this could make solar potentially less attractive to large-scale operators.
The government’s newly announced Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) should appeal to smaller-scale generators (up to 5MW) that will be paid for each unit of electricity they sell to the grid - tracked by their smart meter.
Even with the expected increase in energy storage (using batteries and EVs), there’ll still be a need to generate electricity when there’s no sun or wind. Other forms of renewable energy – such as hydro and sustainable biomass – can fill these gaps.
Drax power station – like Haven Power, part of Drax Group – currently provides 12% of the UK’s total renewable electricity from sustainable biomass. It does so reliably and affordably, offering a regular supply of clean energy that can support intermittent renewables such as wind and solar power.
Drax is also exploring the potential of sustainable biomass to do more than reduce emissions. If successful at scale, its pilot project in bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology could result in electricity being generated with negative emissions.
More than just renewable power generation
The increase in renewable power generation brings with it a new set of challenges. For example, as the amount of renewable power on the UK network increases, so the difficulty in balancing the system rises too. In addition, there are services that solar PV and wind turbines struggle to provide, including frequency response. This keeps the entire electricity system stable – and, currently, can most reliably be provided by generators that run spinning turbines.
Drax will continue to provide those fundamental support services, as well as vital renewable power through its Customers business (Haven Power and sister company Opus Energy). What’s more, as 2030 approaches, Drax Group will continue to help intermittent renewables meet the challenge of generating the electricity that the UK needs and demands.
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