Analysis

Five ways the UK's electricity grid is changing

  • 10 Apr 2015, 08:20
  • Simon Evans

The rapid increase in UK solar power capacity will help the electricity grid to experience record lows in peak demand this summer, the National Grid says.

Its 2015 summer outlook report, published yesterday, describes the changes and challenges that can be expected for gas and electricity networks this year. Its sister publication, the winter outlook, tends to attract more headlines.

But the latest report is full of fascinating insights into how the UK's relationship with electricity is changing as part of efforts to tackle climate change. Here are five things we learned from the summer outlook.

The solar surge is driving demand off grid

National Grid says the UK's embedded solar power capacity has almost doubled in the past 12 months, from 2.4 gigawatts in February 2014 to 4.4 gigawatts a year later. The solar surge has been driven by falling module prices and a rush to install solar farms before a change to subsidy rules kicked in earlier this month.

Embedded solar capacity is not connected to the national electricity transmission grid. The amount of electricity this capacity supplies is not measured directly by National Grid, but it shows up indirectly as reduced demand.

This demand-reduction effect is growing as solar capacity expands (orange areas, below). The impact is greatest around midday in the summer months, when solar electricity output (yellow areas) approaches installed capacity.

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More coal plants are being cancelled than built

  • 16 Mar 2015, 13:00
  • Sophie Yeo

Coal trucks | Shutterstock

The global coal boom has started to slow, a new  report says, as more plans for new power plants are now being shelved than completed.

The number of cancelled coal projects across the world has outstripped those completed at a rate of two to one since 2010, according to Sierra Club and CoalSwarm - two campaign groups that have tracked the progress of 3,900 intended plants since 1 January 2010.

The findings update a 2012 report by the World Resources Institute, which estimated that 1,199 new coal-fired power plants, with a total capacity of 1,401 gigawatts, were in the pipeline for construction.

New figures suggest that, by 2014, this had shrunk by 23% to a proposed 1,083 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity.

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Comparison of 2012 WRI figures and 2014 Global Coal Plant Tracker. Source: Boom and Bust: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline

The report puts this down to citizen opposition, competition from renewables, new policy initiatives and political scandals putting a freeze on the highly polluting projects.

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Five charts showing the EU's surprising progress on renewable energy

  • 11 Mar 2015, 13:06
  • Simon Evans

Renewables provided 15% of the EU's energy in 2013, according to new data published yesterday by Eurostat, the EU's official statistical body.

The figures show the EU is on track to meet its 20% renewables target in 2020. Transport and heat are lagging behind progress in electricity, where wind and solar remain relatively small contributors. The figures also show that the UK is further behind its 2020 renewable energy target than all other member states.

Carbon Brief breaks down the figures to show how the EU is progressing towards its 2020 target, which sectors are going green and where it's getting renewable energy from.

Member state performance

Under the headline 20% by 2020 EU renewables target, each member state has its own goal. These were set in early 2008 and reflected progress at the time and capacity to add further renewable energy by 2020. The sum of national targets adds up to the overall 20% goal.

Progress varies widely among the 28 member states. For instance, Sweden, which got 39% of its energy from renewables in 2004, has a 49% target for 2020. It has already exceeded this target by 3% (far left column, below).

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Member states' gaps between their renewable energy shares in 2013 and their targets for 2020. Sweden (SE) has exceeded its target. The UK is furthest behind, closely followed by the Netherlands (NE). Source: Eurostat. Chart by Carbon Brief.

The UK is near the bottom of the pile, with a 5.1% renewable share in 2013 up from 1.2% a decade earlier. Only the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Malta get a lower share of their energy from renewables than the UK.

The UK is further behind its 2020 target than any other member state, remaining 10% short of  its 15% goal for 2020 (far right column, above). Renewable energy's share of the energy mix has grown more quickly in the UK than in most other member states, however.

In the decade to 2013, the UK renewable share quadrupled, a feat matched only by Belgium, Luxembourg and Malta. The German renewable share doubled over the same period.

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The Carbon Brief Interview: Ed Davey

  • 05 Mar 2015, 06:00
  • Leo Hickman

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston and Surbiton, has been the UK's longest-serving secretary of state for energy and climate change since taking office in February 2012. The Liberal Democrats have been in coalition with the Conservative party since the last general election in 2010.

Here, Davey discusses a wide range of issues: his vision for a zero-carbon Britain by 2050; why the Treasury's economic modelling assumptions are "rubbish"; why some Conservatives are "crazy" about fracking; why the proposed Hinkley C nuclear plant would be value for money; why the world needs to get off fossil fuels within "30-40 years"; why maximising North Sea oil doesn't contradict low-carbon objectives; what form of energy he'd invest his own money in; and why energy bills would have been higher if a Conservative had been in charge of his department since 2010 instead of a Liberal Democrat...

CB: This week, you've been setting out the "Green Magna Carta" and the Lib Dems have pledged for the UK to be zero-carbon by 2050. What does that mean exactly and how do you intend we get there? And how are we going to pay for that?

ED: The Green Magna Carta is going to be on the frontpage of the Lib Dem manifesto. It's basically five green bills and I had that idea because I wanted to make sure that we could build on the success that we've had here in energy and climate change, in our department, but also fill in the gaps in other departments, DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government], DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and others, to really take forward the environment and climate change agenda, very strongly in the first half of the next Parliament, with a big legislative agenda. So, we've got the green transport bill, the zero waste bill, the green homes bill, a nature bill and a zero-carbon Britain bill. The zero-carbon Britain is about raising our ambition.


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UK renewables auction pushes down costs

  • 27 Feb 2015, 08:10
  • Simon Evans

Windfarm | Shutterstock

Contracts worth £315 million have been awarded to 27 renewable energy projects with a combined capacity of 2.1 gigawatts, the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced on Thursday.

The "strike prices" awarded to the schemes in the first-ever Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction were well below those expected. The strike price is the price paid for each unit of electricity supplied by the schemes, guaranteed for 15 years.

Carbon Brief's number crunching shows the government could have supported double the capacity if only the cheapest renewables such as onshore wind had been supported. It also shows that offshore wind projects awarded contracts last year could have been £2.2 billion cheaper, if they had been given the same support as offshore schemes contracted this year.

Most of the projects are windfarms

The majority of the 27 schemes are windfarms, including 15 onshore and two offshore schemes (the blue and green chunks below). The remaining contracts went to five solar farms (yellow) and five schemes that will burn or gasify waste to generate energy (black and grey).

Source: Department for Energy and Climate Change. Chart by Carbon Brief.

The total cost of the schemes is expected to be £315 million between now and the 2020-21 financial year. The schemes will cost around £4 billion over the full 15-year lifetime of the contracts, according to DECC figures quoted by the Financial Times.

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How the EU's evolving Energy Union reveals underlying politics

  • 25 Feb 2015, 16:15
  • Simon Evans

EU flags | Shutterstock

Europe's energy system needs to be fundamentally transformed, shifting away from reliance on fossil fuels, according to the European Commission's proposals for an energy union.

A framework strategy for the energy union, published today, explains how the commission plans to achieve this transformation. The strategy attempts to create a coherent vision by synthesising all existing EU policies on climate and energy with a number of new initiatives.

Reactions so far suggest this synthesis has only been partially successful. Legal NGO ClientEarth says the strategy lacks clear rules on how EU targets will be met. Thinktank E3G says the strategy is "good on vision, but deeply confused on delivery priorities". NGO Greenpeace says the plan is "contradictory" and lacks coherence, while WWF says it has "blind spots".

Carbon Brief explains where the idea of an energy union came from and shows how the strategy text has evolved through several drafts, revealing evidence of the differing political priorities that have challenged creation of a clear and coherent strategy.

It's important to note that the commission proposal will be discussed by member state governments at meetings in March, April and June. They could propose further changes.

Moving on from Tusk's energy security union

The idea of an energy union was first proposed by European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk in an April 2014 article for the Financial Times. Tusk's proposal emphasised energy security above all.

It called for region-wide purchasing of gas, linking and strengthening the EU's electricity transmission systems, and making "full use" of EU fossil fuel reserves, including coal and shale gas.

Earlier this month, Carbon Brief produced a detailed energy union briefing based on a leaked draft strategy dated 30 January. The briefing explained how Tusk's proposal had been transformed into a more holistic strategy with five "dimensions": integrated energy markets, a new deal for energy consumers, energy efficiency, decarbonising the economy and research.

Since then, a second draft was widely leaked, including to Carbon Brief. This draft shifted emphasis in a number of key areas while the final version moves things on again. So, how has the energy union evolved in recent weeks?

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Five charts showing how BP's vision differs from a climate-friendly future

  • 19 Feb 2015, 15:00
  • Simon Evans

Oil firm BP says the world is still failing to do enough to tackle climate change, despite major policy announcements over the past year from the US, EU and China.

The latest annual Energy Outlook shows how BP sees the world changing in terms of economic growth, energy use and emissions. While BP expects countries to meet current climate pledges, it does not think they will be enough to avoid dangerous climate change.

Carbon Brief takes a look at how the media reported the Energy Outlook and how BP's vision differs from a climate-friendly future.

Rising energy use and emissions

The BP outlook predicts energy demand will grow by 37 per cent between 2013 and 2035, reports the Guardian. This is "at odds with the fight against climate change", the paper says.

A more climate-friendly future is set out in the International Energy Agency (IEA) two degrees scenario. This shows how energy efficiency must play a large part in limiting emissions.

Global energy demand increases by just 14 per cent between 2012 and 2035 in the IEA two degrees scenario, slower than over the past two decades (blue line, below). In contrast, BP expects the recent rapid growth in energy demand to continue (green line).

Global energy demand in the BP Energy Outlook and IEA two degrees scenario. Source: BP Energy Outlook 2035 and IEA World Energy Outlook 2014. Chart by Carbon Brief.

BP's outlook expects two thirds of the increase in energy demand to be met by fossil fuels, reports RTCC. Gas would overtake coal as the number one energy source, reports City AM.

The Financial Times reports BP saying that oil producers' cartel Opec will make a comeback while the Times and Independent focus on low expectations for the UK shale gas industry.

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How significant is the UK party leaders' joint climate pledge?

  • 16 Feb 2015, 15:10
  • Simon Evans

Over the weekend, the UK's three main political leaders pledged to tackle climate change after the next election, whatever the outcome on 5 May.

The Conservative's David Cameron, Labour's Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrat's Nick Clegg agreed to work towards a legally-binding global climate deal, to agree new UK emissions-cutting goals and to phase out unabated coal-fired power stations.

Carbon Brief assesses the significance of the unusual joint pre-election pledge.

Cross-party pledge

There are three parts to the party leaders' pledge, published on Saturday after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations brokered by NGOs, including Green Alliance, Christian Aid and the Women's Institute.

The leaders agree:

  • To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below two degrees.

  • To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets, in accordance with the Climate Change Act.

  • To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.

The first part of the pledge, on a legally-binding climate deal consistent with limiting warming to two degrees, is in line with official EU policy. So the UK government already supported this aim.

The wording does not specifically refer to the UN climate talks where leaders are supposed to agree a deal in Paris this December. This omission may be to allow for the chance that the Paris talks agree a deal which is not legally binding, or which falls short on the goal of limiting warming to no more than two degrees.

The second part, on UK carbon budgets, is also a restatement of current policy. The Climate Change Act is legally binding and says that carbon budgets must be agreed according to a fixed timetable and the advice of the Committee on Climate Change.

The coal phase out pledge is a new policy for Labour and the Conservatives. However, it reflects current government expectations that unabated coal use for energy would have in any case ceased by around 2030. Unabated coal would be off the electricity grid by 2027 under central projections from the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

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Seven charts showing how the EU's energy use is being transformed

  • 10 Feb 2015, 08:00
  • Simon Evans

Polish coal plant | Shutterstock

EU energy use has fallen again, according to the latest official data published. Energy use is now nearly 10 per cent below a 2006 peak and has returned to levels last seen a quarter century ago in the early 1990s.

The sources of the EU's energy have changed dramatically too, the data shows, with coal and oil use now below 1990 levels. Meanwhile, energy from renewables has surged, with output nearly tripling between 1990 and 2013.

EU energy use is in the midst of a massive transformation as the region works to tackle climate change while replacing ageing energy infrastructure and attempting to minimise costs. Here are seven charts that show what's going on.

Falling EU energy use

Energy use in the EU fell to 1,666 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2013, according to the latest data from Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical body. This is about the same amount of energy as was used back in 1990, a quarter of a century ago. The fall reverses a long-rising trend in energy use, as the chart below shows.

EU energy use. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014; chart by Carbon Brief

Back in 1990, the EU accounted for 21 per cent of global energy use. By 2013, that share had fallen to 13 per cent as EU energy flatlined while the rest of the world surged ahead. The EU's energy use has been eclipsed by China, whose share has climbed from eight per cent to 22 per cent over the same time period.

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Briefing: What is the EU's energy union?

  • 06 Feb 2015, 10:55
  • Simon Evans

EU flags | Shutterstock

  • Senior officials are meeting in Riga, Latvia to discuss the EU energy union.
  • The idea was launched last year by the European Council's Polish president, Donald Tusk, as a response to Russia's annexation of the Crimea.
  • The energy union appears to mean different things to different people.
  • Some want it to emphasise energy security, others energy efficiency or decarbonisation.
  • The European Commission will publish the official strategy on 25 February.

Senior officials from across the EU are gathering today in the Latvian capital Riga to discuss the creation of an EU energy union.

In April 2014, European Council president and former Polish prime minister  Donald Tusk launched the idea for an energy union in an  article for the Financial Times, primarily as a response to the Crimea crisis and Russian aggression over gas contracts.

Tusk's proposed energy union emphasised energy security above all. It called for region-wide purchasing of gas, linking and strengthening the EU's electricity transmission systems, and making "full use" of EU fossil fuel reserves including coal and shale gas.

Since then, the concept has evolved into a more holistic and rounded strategy, as set out by the European Commission in a widely leaked draft paper. A separate paper, more closely aligned to Tusk's vision, is expected from Latvia, which holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency and is hosting today's conference.

Until the commission publishes its energy union framework strategy on 25 February, member states and lobby groups will be battling to impose their preferred vision on the final outcome.

The Draft EU strategy

The leaked commission paper sets out an energy union of five interlinked topics, or 'dimensions'. Each dimension includes a series of 'actions', many of which relate to existing policy commitments. There are some new initiatives, however, and the overall tone of the paper shows how far the energy union has shifted since Tusk's April 2014 article.

Here's a quick rundown of the five dimensions.

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