Analysis

Seven unexpected graphs about the UK’s energy sector

  • 30 Oct 2014, 12:45
  • Simon Evans & Mat Hope

Pylons and roads | Shutterstock

Sometimes our understanding of what's going on in the world is at odds with the facts - on issues ranging from  teen pregnancies and immigration to levels of voter turnout and the ethnic makeup of the UK.

The energy sector is no different, it seems.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) delivered one of its increasingly common  data dumps this morning.

We've delved through the  pile of stats to bring you seven graphs about energy in the UK that raise some questions about received wisdom in the area.

Energy costs aren't high, historically speaking

The media is fond of pointing out that households are paying more for  energy than they used to. This is true - but the data shows the cost of energy is a long way from being at historic highs.

The cost of electricity, gas and other fuels has been rising since it bottomed-out in 2004. Between 2002 and 2012 energy bills  increased by 55 per cent, after accounting for inflation. But the amount households spend on energy compared to other things is still relatively low. 

In the 1980s, energy bills represented over five per cent of a household's costs. In 2012, it was a little under 4 per cent:


Source:  DECC energy sector indicators 2013

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Five things we learned from National Grid's Winter Outlook report

  • 28 Oct 2014, 14:05
  • Simon Evans

Newspapers are this morning saying the UK is at increased risk of blackouts. The headlines are covering an annual report from the National Grid, which insists the lights will not be going out. Energy market regulator Ofgem and the government are also lining up behind the grid to reassure the public that the lights will stay on.

So what is the document that National Grid has published today? And does it tell us what state the UK energy system is in? We take a look at five things we learned from the National Grid Winter Outlook.

Power supply margins are tighter than last year

The UK's electricity system is in a state of flux. It's changing as power stations close down as a result of old age and more stringent pollution rules. At the same time we are building lots of renewables, mainly windfarms.

During this shift in the supply base, the buffer between peak demand for power and the maximum that can be generated (the capacity margin) is expected to shrink for a few years.

This shouldn't be a surprise. We saw very similar newspaper headlines warning of 'blackouts' in both 2012 and 2013.

National Grid has been busy planning for the change in our energy system for a while. What has been a surprise this year is the number of unexpected events, including several power station fires. These have reduced generating capacity and raised the volume of worried headlines.

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What is the emissions impact of switching from coal to gas?

  • 27 Oct 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Arizona gas | Shutterstock

The US's shale gas boom is credited with helping the country cut power sector emissions 16 per cent since 2007.  Official figures released earlier this week suggest a switch from coal to gas was largely responsible for the drop.

But there are competing theories. Last week,  Greenpeace released analysis with the headline 'Renewables cutting US emissions more than gas as coal consumption drops'.  Business Green and  Thinkprogress reported the finding, amongst others.  

So why are the US's emissions falling?

Fuel 'switching'

Figuring out why the power sector's emissions change is quite hard, and relies on lots of assumptions about how the energy market works.

The US gets power mainly from coal, gas, renewables and nuclear. By analysing changes in this mix, it should be possible to work out how switching from one fuel to another affects emissions.

Data from the US's Energy Information Administration shows how much power each fuel generated over a particular timeframe.

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Q&A: The EU's 2030 climate targets

  • 24 Oct 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

Last night EU leaders came to a compromise deal on climate targets for 2030.

The headline target is to cut EU emissions by "at least" 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030. The EU has also agreed targets to get at least 27 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to cut energy use by at least 27 per cent against business as usual.

Is the deal ambitious and world-leading, as some EU countries are claiming? Or is it more a case of bungs to the Polish coal industry and weak ambition on energy saving and renewables?

We take you through the essential questions about the 2030 deal.

How ambitious is the EU being?

The EU announcement is certainly world-leading in at least one sense: it is the first major player to lay down its commitment to tackling climate change out to 2030. UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon says the target demonstrates the continued global climate leadership of the EU.

The likes of China and the US are expected to take note when deciding their own commitments in the run up to next year's talks in Paris, where a global climate deal is due to be signed.

In this context the two little words, "at least", are all-important.

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The gas industry's delicate climate policy balancing act

  • 23 Oct 2014, 15:39
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

European leaders are currently meeting to discuss the future of the region's climate and energy policy. Today, representatives of the gas industry called for ambitious changes to ensure the EU hits its ambitious emissions reduction goal without jeopardising their commercial interests.

"Dealing with climate change is a long term issue," Elisabeth Tørstad, CEO of fossil fuel industry advisers DNV told an audience of experts at the Financial Times' gas summit today. Tørstad was part of a panel tasked with assessing current threats to the European gas industry.

So how enthusiastic is the gas industry feeling about climate policy?

Carbon pricing

If the gas industry wants to help cut emissions and boost it's own prospects, the biggest obstacle is Europe's dysfunctional carbon market, the panel agreed.

EU leaders are due to discuss a  suite of reforms to the emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) this week. Passing those reforms is an "opportunity that has to be seized", says Dick Benschop, vice president of Shell's gas market development.

It might seem odd that an industry that would bear much of the economic cost of those reforms should be so keen to see them implemented. But there's an obvious reason for the gas industry to support a price on carbon: it could help squeeze coal out of Europe's energy mix.

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US emissions increase hints at limitations of Obama’s clean power plan

  • 22 Oct 2014, 17:10
  • Mat Hope

President Obama | Shutterstock

US energy sector emissions increased slightly in 2013, according to new data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This may seem like bad news for President Obama, who has pledged to cut the country's emissions 17 per cent by 2020.

Obama unveiled his  clean power plan earlier this year to much fanfare. The centrepiece of the plan is to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 30 per cent by 2020.

The US's rising energy sector emissions seem to  suggest the policy may not be as effective as Obama hopes.

Obama's clean power plan specifically targets emissions from power generation, which accounts for   about 32 per cent of the US's total emissions. Cutting emissions from the US's homes and businesses is a much smaller part of his wider   Climate Action Plan.

The EIA's data shows the potential limitations of focusing on cutting power generation emissions without addressing the country's broader energy consumption.

Emissions increase

US energy sector emissions increased 2.5 per cent in 2013 compared to year before, the EIA's data shows. The EIA says the main reason for the increase was colder weather.

Winter temperatures at the start of 2013 were lower than a year before, and the US also experienced a particularly mild spring last year. Temperatures fell again later in the year, when the US was  engulfed by the polar vortex.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 16.15.40.png
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average monthly temperatures. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Households and businesses turned up their thermostats in response to the lower temperatures, which meant burning a lot more gas and a bit more oil. The residential sector was responsible for 48 per cent of 2013's emissions increase, mostly due to heat demand, the EIA says.

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How National Grid keeps the lights on when a large power station catches fire

  • 20 Oct 2014, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

Didcot power station | Andrew Smith

What happens when a major gas power station catches on fire? Well,  it certainly looks spectacular. But it appears the short term impact on the UK's power generation is pretty minimal.

Energy company RWE npower had to  unexpectedly shut down one of the Dicot B power station's 700 megawatt units last night after a fire broke out in one of the cooling towers.

Didcot's shutdown is the latest in a series of unexpected outages which National Grid has had to cope with in recent months. This has led to a  spate of headlines questioning whether National Grid will have enough power stations available to cope with high demand over the winter months.

We take a look at how National Grid copes with such unexpected events, and why it remains confident the UK will have enough power this winter.

Where does the UK's power come from?

National Grid is legally required to make sure there's always enough power to meet demand. The UK's peak demand - at around 6pm on weekdays - is currently around 45 gigawatts. This is expected to rise to about  55 gigawatts over the winter, as people spend more time indoors and use more electricity.

Big coal, gas, and nuclear power stations are responsible for meeting most of this demand. The government's  latest statistics show 30 per cent of the UK's electricity comes from gas, with 28 per cent coming from coal. Nuclear power provides about 20 per cent.

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Analysis: Who wants what from the EU 2030 climate framework

  • 17 Oct 2014, 12:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Number 10

Ambitious EU 2030 climate targets could be crucial to unlocking a global climate deal in Paris next year. Yet EU leaders still can't agree the details, with just days to go.

Uncertainty remains because different EU member states want different things from the 2030 policy framework, which will set the trajectory for EU climate and energy policy for the next 15 years. Some countries want three targets - to cut emissions, increase use of renewable energy and boost take up of energy efficiency. Others want an emissions target only. And a few say they will only accept targets with sweeteners.

So who wants what from the EU 2030 climate framework, and what does that mean for how ambitious it will be?

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Factcheck: Daily Express claims windfarms will add £1,000 to household bills

  • 15 Oct 2014, 16:00
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

Utility bill | Shutterstock

Wind farms will be responsible for adding £1,000 to household energy bills, the Daily Express's frontpage today claims.

The figure is based on a submission by campaign group the Scientific Alliance to the House of Lords Science and Technology committee. The committee is exploring different ways the UK can cut energy sector emissions while making sure the lights stay on.

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But the alliance takes an outdated approach to calculating how many power stations the UK needs, leading it to come up with numbers that are significantly out of step with other experts.

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Owen Paterson’s objections to the Climate Change Act: some context

  • 13 Oct 2014, 15:00
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

Wind & coal | Shutterstock

Former environment minister Owen Paterson has been in the papers over the weekend. In an article on the front page of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph he says we won't be able to keep the UK's lights on unless we scrap the Climate Change Act. This is a law requiring the government to cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, which he himself voted for.

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Paterson is due to give a lecture to climate sceptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation on Wednesday, where he will expand on this theme. In advance of his talk we've taken a look at what he has to say.

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