Decade of decarbonisation as UK shifts to renewables – study

Drax
Andy Koss

A new independent study has found that the UK’s move towards renewables has helped drive a faster rate of decarbonisation over the last decade than anywhere else in the world.

Over the period, carbon emissions in Britain’s power sector fell by around two thirds to 54 million metric tonnes in 2019 from 161 million tonnes in 2010 as the country’s generators shifted away from coal and natural gas to renewables such as sustainable biomass.

Electricity demand, which fell 13% over the decade, delivered around a third of the decline in carbon emissions in the sector over the period, while wind energy delivered a quarter of the reduction, according to an independent analysis by academics from Imperial College London for Drax Electric Insights.

The fall in power demand came even as the population grew by 7% and GDP rose by a quarter as measures such as more energy efficient lighting, manufacturing and other efficiency measures took hold.

However, this decline could be reversed in the years ahead with the rise in the use of electric vehicles and household heat pumps, meaning further decarbonisation cannot be achieved through a reduction in demand alone.

The report warns that with the greater reliance on weather-dependent sources ‘system operability will undoubtedly become more difficult in the years to come’, with a need for increased system support services and greater flexibility.

“In the past decade, we’ve seen unprecedented changes in Britain’s power system, which has transformed at a speed never seen before,” said Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London and lead author of the quarterly Electric Insights reports.

“Several factors made significant contributions to falling emissions including carbon prices, coal retirements, conversions to biomass and the growth in wind capacity. But reductions in electricity demand dwarfed all the others – helping to push down power prices and environmental impacts.

“If this pace of change can be maintained, renewables could provide more than half Britain’s electricity by the end of this decade and the power system could be practically carbon free.”

Biomass provided a bigger reduction in emissions and wholesale power prices than solar power relative to the size of its installed capacity, according to the report.

Andy Koss, Drax CEO of Generation, said: “Replacing coal with sustainable biomass at Drax has cut our carbon emissions by more than 80%, transforming the business to become the largest renewable power generator in the UK, accelerating decarbonisation over the decade as well as supporting lower wholesale power prices.

“As the UK strives to achieve its world-leading net zero carbon target, it’s clear the power system will have to continue evolving and many different solutions, including negative emissions technologies like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), will be needed alongside more renewables.

“BECCS, which Drax is pioneering, has the potential to permanently remove 16 million tonnes of carbon a year from the atmosphere and help other sectors like aviation to reach net zero.”

Yorkshire-based Drax supplies 12% of the UK’s renewable electricity using sustainable biomass.