Last winter was the greenest ever for the UK’s energy system after strong winds produced more renewable electricity and coal-fired power dwindled.
The news came as SSE announced on Thursday that it will close its Fiddler’s Ferry coal-fired power station next year, which will leave the UK with five coal plants by 2020. SSE said the plant, which employs 158 people, was financially unsustainable.
National Grid, which operates the UK’s national electricity network, said on Thursday the UK relied less on coal power plants this winter, partly because it was the fifth-warmest winter recorded in the last 59 years. The milder temperatures dampened energy demand, making it easier for National Grid to avoid using coal in favour of running gas power plants, which produce only half the carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, stronger wind speeds helped drive carbon emissions down by spurring higher levels of low-carbon renewable electricity from wind farms.
As a result, the carbon intensity of Britain’s electricity – or the amount of carbon produced for every kilowatt of electricity – fell to an average of 242.8 grams of carbon between October to March.
Elsewhere in the world severe winters and hotter than normal summers have had the opposite effect; driving up energy demand to run heating and cooling systems, and increasing global emissions.
National Grid said its new record low is half the level seen five years ago and is likely to fall further in the years to come as coal plants shut down. The report has emerged only weeks after the UK’s energy system ran coal-free for more than a fortnight for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.
Fintan Slye, the head of National Grid’s system operator arm, said: “More renewable power generation and less coal is a trend that is here to stay and this carbon intensity milestone shows the pace of change in the UK energy industry.
“We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon.”
Coal-fired power made up only 5% of the UK’s electricity over the winter and will close altogether by 2025 under a government ban. Wind power and nuclear plants made up an 18% stake in the power generation mix, while gas-fired power plants produced 42% of the UK’s winter electricity.
Stephen Wheeler, the managing director of thermal energy at SSE, said the Fiddler’s Ferry site in Cheshire could not compete with gas and renewable energy and was losing £40m a year, as government policy focuses on supporting less carbon-intensive forms of energy. “Financially, the station is making significant losses and our projections show that this will continue to be the case as the UK looks to phase out coal-fired generation by 2025 at the latest. At nearly 50 years old, the station is unable to compete with more efficient and modern gas and renewable generation.”