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Why we’re going to be breaking renewable records for the foreseeable future, and what that means

  • 28 Aug 2014, 13:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 William Kunz

UK wind power shattered records last week, spinning out 22 per cent of electricity demand for a day. One in five of our morning cups of tea was renewably-powered, if you like.

Sound familiar? It should, because renewables keep  breaking  records. In 2013 records were smashed. The same was true in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. We've been building a lot of windfarms, solar panels and biomass conversions recently.

The rest of the world has too but it's been building huge numbers of fossil-fired power plants at the same time. But even though renewable electricity output around the world will continue to break records through to 2020, we'll still only get a quarter of our power from renewables.

 

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Could an independent Scotland deliver a low carbon future?

  • 26 Aug 2014, 14:55
  • Mat Hope

Shutterstock: Scottish Borders

In a little over three weeks, Scottish voters will head to the polls to decide whether their country should remain part of the UK, and politicians have been ramping up the rhetoric as the referendum draws closer.

Energy policy has been a topic the opposing camps have repeatedly clashed over. Those wanting independence - the 'Yes' camp - claim the country's renewable electricity potential and North Sea oil and gas reserves can provide cheap, clean energy for decades to come.

In contrast, the 'No' camp claim independence could plunge Scotland into an energy crisis, with bills rocketing as the country struggles to fund its own energy sector.

So what difference will the vote make to the energy future of these isles?

Renewables: Plentiful potential, sparse funding?

Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond has enthusiastically promoted the country as the "Saudi Arabia of renewables".

The Scottish government has pledged to get the equivalent of  100 per cent of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020. Scotland also shares the UK's EU obligation to get  15 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020.

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Is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

  • 21 Aug 2014, 10:40
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Kimon Berlin

Coal prices have halved since 2011 because of China's "anything but coal" power plans and competition from cleaner sources of energy, the Financial Times reports. Prices will probably rebound, but analysts tell the paper the recovery may be slow.

Back home, the UK has a coal problem. Use is up a fifth in four years due in part to low prices and the government has been looking at extending the life of coal plants. German use is up 13 per cent too.

Some are saying the shift to coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, has been at the expense of cleaner gas and nuclear. If it persists it would be a threat to EU plans to cut emissions by 40 per cent in 2030.

So is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

Supply and demand

First, let's take a look at today's coal price and why it has become so cheap.

Coal prices haven't been this low since 2009, as the chart below shows, and have almost halved since a peak in 2011. Over the same period crude oil has remained above the historically unprecedented $100 per barrel level (purple line). So low coal prices aren't being caused by generally weak demand for energy.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 At 16.04.19

A version of this blog was originally published on 23 June.

 

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Unpacking Christopher Booker's wind vs coal comparison

  • 18 Aug 2014, 17:30
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Martyn Bull

UK energy policy is "collapsing", says Christopher Booker, just like the cooling towers of closed coal-fired power station Didcot A in Oxfordshire. It's an arresting image, but is it right?

Booker thinks we should be sticking with cheap coal-fired electricity instead of investing in wind power, despite the large carbon emissions and health impacts from coal-generated air pollution.

Wind versus Didcot A

Booker's recurring theme is that wind power is a poor way to generate electricity, when compared to coal.

In order to rubbish it he presents a comparison with coal power. But it's not easy to understand, and more importantly it may obscure more than it reveals about what's actually going on with power generation in the UK.

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Fracking in the UK - the Carbon Brief summary

  • 15 Aug 2014, 14:30
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

No Dash for Gas

Shale gas is normal gas extracted from shale rock using a technique known as fracking - or hydraulic fracturing.

Protests have sprung up in recent years in opposition to what is sometimes perceived as an unsafe practice. Major studies have been conducted to try and answer such fears. But new research is often met with a mixture of scepticism and spin so has done little to dampen the debate.

Negotiating arguments about fracking from the UK can be tricky. Most of the industry's experience is in the US, where regulatory regimes are very different, and evidence of fracking's environmental impact is often contested.

We try to summarise the key questions about shale gas' impacts and, where possible, draw some conclusions.

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Transition énergétique: What France’s energy law learns from Germany and the UK

  • 13 Aug 2014, 11:05
  • Mat Hope

CC 2.0: Hans

France has announced it will undertake  an ambitious energy sector transformation that will see the country cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent by 2030. France joins neighbours Germany and the UK, who both have their own legislation to cut energy sector emissions. If the plans come off, they will leave the EU's three biggest economies with radically different power systems to those they're operating today.

Such transformations aren't technoligically straightforward, and getting the public to back such ambitious schemes hasn't always been easy.

Here's a look at the three countries' respective plans, and the challenges they're likely to face.

Energy transformations

France, Germany and the UK all have ambitious policy programmes to cut energy sector emissions.

The UK has had legally binding emissions reduction goals since 2008, and  passed a law late last year outlining a range of new schemes designed to achieve them. Germany began implementing sweeping reforms to decarbonise its energy sector in 2010, known as the Energiewende France has just followed suit, passing a law last week that was described by France's environment minister, Ségolène Royal, as "the  most advanced legislation in the European Union".

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Fracking’s impact on house prices is unclear, but people still don’t want it (or anything else) in their back yards

  • 11 Aug 2014, 13:45
  • Mat Hope

CC 2.0

The government has  released a report on the potential local impacts of shale gas in response to a freedom of information request. Several parts are heavily redacted, leading to accusations that the government is  trying to hide fracking's possible downsides.

But the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it's concerned there is a risk that "disclosure of early thinking, could close down discussion".

Such sensitivities are very real - although many people support the idea of fracking for shale gas, polling suggests opposition rises as the idea of the technology gets closer to home.

House prices

The Defra study sets out to try and find out - among other things - what effect shale gas production has on house prices.

The report cites four North American studies that find shale gas developments can have an impact on local house prices. Three studies looking at  TexasPittsburgh, and  Alberta, Canada found nearby shale gas wells could decrease house prices by between 3 and 14 per cent. A fourth study focused on Pennsylvania found fracking could increase property prices in some cases, but deflate them in others.

 

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In pictures: The hidden face of UK renewable electricity

  • 07 Aug 2014, 16:00
  • Simon Evans

Infinis

Where does renewable electricity come from? You're probably thinking about wind turbines and solar panels. But in the UK, that's only half the story.

To find out why, join us for our third dive into the government's annual energy data, DUKES, published last week. Parts one and two covered the challenge of decarbonising the UK and changes in UK gas supply and demand.

In part three we show - among other things - that rotting rubbish tips generated more electricity in 2013 than hydropower or solar panels. In a series of pictures we'll show you the hidden faces behind the past, present and future of UK renewable electricity.

UK renewable electricity is growing fast

Renewables generated 54 terawatt hours of electricity in 2013, 15 per cent of the UK total. That's enough to supply 11 million average homes with all their electricity for a year, almost half of all UK homes.

 

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Government data hints at future challenges for curbing natural gas emissions

  • 05 Aug 2014, 16:30
  • Mat Hope

CC 2.0

Gas plays an essential role in the UK's energy mix, providing heat for homes and electricity to sockets. While that's not likely to change in the short term, the fuel will need to be increasingly phased out as the government seeks to  decarbonise the energy sector.

A trawl through new government  data shows how far the UK's come in recent years, and hints at challenges to come.

Gas trends

The UK currently uses three trillion cubic feet of gas each year. That demand may need to fall by as much as  20 per cent over the next two decades if the UK is going to hit its  climate targets.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change's  Digest of UK Energy Statistics, released last week, shows how much would need to change for that to happen.

DECC's data shows gas demand has fallen 17 per cent in the last five years. But while demand has fallen significantly from 2011's high, its plateaued in recent years. Demand was only one per cent lower in 2013 compared to a year before.

Gas is mainly used for two things, as the blue and purple sections of the graph below show: generating electricity, and heating people's homes.

DUKES 2014 UK gas consumptionDECC's data shows gas is being used increasingly sparingly to generate electricity. The amount of gas used in electricity generation fell by 13 per cent last year. But that doesn't necessarily spell good news for the UK's emissions.  

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Christopher Booker's curiously distorted views on wind power

  • 04 Aug 2014, 14:45
  • Simon Evans

Climate sceptic columnist Christopher Booker has launched his latest attack on wind power, but the picture he presents of the technology is curiously distorted.

In an  article for the Daily Mail he says the UK is suffering "a bout of collective insanity over renewable energy, for which it is hard to think of any historical parallel".

We've gone through Booker's piece, and noted some things you probably wouldn't know after reading it.

1) UK windfarms produce more power than Drax

Booker's dislike of windfarms seems to verge on the evangelical. But in his latest piece he sticks to the numbers in explaining his "crucial objection" to the technology. Unfortunately, the numbers are inaccurate or misleading.

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