UK emissions fall to 25 year low as a surge in coal use ends

  • 15 Jan 2015, 14:15
  • Simon Evans

Ferrybridge coal plant | Shutterstock

There was a 10 per cent reduction in UK carbon dioxide emissions in the twelve months to October 2014 compared to the previous year, new government data shows.

The majority of the 49 million tonne reduction came from reduced energy emissions as a three year surge in UK coal use came to an end, with renewables and gas picking up the slack in power supplies.

The reduction saw total UK carbon dioxide emissions fall to their lowest level in the past quarter-century, to 28 per cent below 1990 levels (the dark grey line on the chart below).

UK carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. Graph by Carbon Brief using emissions data from the Department for Energy and Climate Change

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UK coal use to fall to lowest level since industrial revolution

  • 15 Jan 2015, 11:00
  • Simon Evans

Colliery museum | Shutterstock

UK coal use is likely to soon fall back to levels last seen during the industrial revolution, Carbon Brief analysis of official figures suggests.

The UK used 49 million tonnes of coal in 2014 according to Carbon Brief estimates. That's more than a 20 per cent reduction compared to the previous year, and the joint lowest coal use in records going back to the 1850s. Only 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, had equally low coal consumption.

There are several reasons to expect coal use to continue falling this year, suggesting a clear historic low is in store for 2015.

Getting out of coal as quickly as possible is necessary in developed countries, to prevent dangerous global warming. To assess UK progress we've looked back at its changing relationship with coal, and what that means for the climate.

Historic coal use

Coal use grew rapidly during the 19th century as the industrial revolution took off and the UK's population increased. A coal-hungry nation used the fuel to produce town gas for lighting from the 1810's, and to power the explosion in rail travel from the 1840s.

The 1880s saw the dawn of today's centralised electricity generation model, with a plant containing a coal-fired generator called Edison's Jumbo opening at Holborn Viaduct in London in 1882.

You can see the impact of all these changes in the steep rise in 19th-century coal use on the timeline below.

Uk -coal -use -timeline -6

Credit: Rosamund Pearce/Carbon Brief using figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change and Carbon Brief calculations based on European electricity use data.

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Five innovations that could cut the cost of offshore wind

  • 13 Jan 2015, 11:20
  • Simon Evans

Offshore | Shutterstock

Offshore windfarms have a growing role in cutting UK carbon emissions, but they're expensive. We've selected five innovations that could help cut costs, from a new Royal Society journal special issue exploring the cutting edge of wind power.

Cost-cutting innovations are important because a growing share of the UK's electricity is generated by offshore windfarms. The UK has 4,042 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, more than any other country in the world.

These windfarms supplied 3.6 per cent of the UK's electricity in the 12 months to October 2014, a tripling in three years. The amount of electricity we get from offshore wind is expected to at least double by 2020.

Offshore windfarms are attractive to politicians because they're typically built out of sight, plus the wind blows harder and more consistently out at sea. The snag is that they're expensive, nearly twice as costly as onshore windfarms per unit of electricity generated and 50 per cent more costly than nuclear power, according to a recent EU study.

The expense is largely down to the difficulty of installing and maintaining large wind turbines able to withstand the elements.

This week the Royal Society has published a special journal issue devoted to offshore innovation. It has 16 papers covering everything from designing better turbines using computers and miniature models to cutting the cost of installation and maintenance through remote sensing. Here are five ideas from the special issue that caught our eye.

Screw-in turbine foundations

Ever-larger offshore wind turbine designs pose a big engineering challenge. They typically have to be secured in deeper waters, against larger waves and able to withstand heavier loads from their bigger sails. This strains the limits of standard 'single pile' foundations.

Developers are starting to use a range of new foundation designs, from tripods to floating platforms. But one of the Royal Society papers suggests a novel option: helical piles. Instead of driving a single hollow steel tube foundation into the ground with a pile driver, helical piles are essentially giant screws that would be screwed into the sea floor.

There are already used on land for some applications and offer several advantages, the paper argues. They can also be 'unscrewed' when the turbine reaches the end of its life, easing decommissioning.

The paper says they're stronger and suitable for a wider range of soils. Screw-in piles would also bypass concerns over the noise impacts on whales and dolphins caused by pile-driving traditional foundations.

The only problem? Screwing the piles in without spinning the installation boat round and round. One answer may be to screw two helical piles in at one, in opposite directions.

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Expert views: How low oil prices affect the UK's climate and energy policy

  • 13 Jan 2015, 09:40
  • Mat Hope

Oil pumps | Shutterstock

The oil price has dropped to $45 per barrel, its lowest point for six years. Some commentators are concerned the price drop could scare off investment in low carbon energy. Others say long-term policy goals should ensure the UK continues to curb energy sector emissions.

Carbon Brief asked a range of experts what the low oil price that could mean for the UK's efforts to decarbonise the energy sector. In particular, Carbon Brief asked them to address three issues:

  • Whether low oil prices will affect the amount of gas the UK uses, and if this has a knock-on effect on the UK's energy mix.

  • Whether the falling oil price necessitates further government efforts to cut emissions, or if the UK's plans are somehow insulated.

  • How low they expected the oil price to go, and whether it requires the government to rethink the UK's energy policy.

Here's what they had to say.

Justin Dargin, energy and middle east scholar, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, University of Oxford:

"Oil prices will have a definite impact on natural gas prices because gas prices generally are linked to oil prices, therefore when oil prices decrease or increase, gas export contracts typically follow suit."

"The falling oil prices do, to a certain extent, make an increase in oil consumption more likely. However, the political will in the U.K. and across Europe to reduce emissions is a long range strategic policy, and therefore, is somewhat insulated from the fluctuations in the international oil price.

"At the same time, renewable energy investment is likely to decline, so the government could develop some incentives to promote more research and development in renewable energy, as well as its use in power generation and other sectors."

"There does not have to be a radical rethink of British energy policy. The extremely low price environment that we are in the moment is unlikely to extend into the long term. But, if it does, then the British government would be able to take advantage of the low oil linked natural gas prices and import more natural gas for use in the transportation and power generation sectors."

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The implications of $50-a-barrel oil for the world’s energy mix

  • 09 Jan 2015, 12:40
  • Mat Hope

Yellow oil barrels | Shutterstock

Oil prices keep sliding, sending economic shockwaves around the world. Analysts are scrambling to try and understand what it means for the world's future energy mix and efforts to cut emissions. But the relationship between oil prices and energy investments is complex.

Much depends on how low the price goes as, beyond a certain point, lots of projects are no longer economically viable.

We take a look at what may happen to the oil price, what it means for the industry, and how it could affect the world's efforts to move towards a zero-carbon energy system.

Oil prices

Over the past year, oil prices have gone from a high of about $115 to a current low of about $50 a barrel, far below many analysts' original expectations.

Those same analysts are now busy revising their projections. While most seem to think the oil price has hit or is nearing rock bottom, there's a wide range of projections for where it may rebound to in 2015.

This chart shows just how varied those predictions are. They're not all like for like - some are estimates of a low point, some are average price projections for the next twelve months, or predictions for particular financial quarters - but they do give an idea of the spread of projections:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 At 11.38.53
Source: Data collated and graphed by Carbon Brief.

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London set to miss mayor's climate change targets as population booms

  • 09 Jan 2015, 11:50
  • Simon Evans

London skyline | Shutterstock

The UK's capital is likely to miss ambitious climate targets set by mayor Boris Johnson, Carbon Brief analysis shows. With London's population expected to reach an all-time high within weeks, already-challenging climate goals are becoming even harder to meet.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the capital were 10 per cent below 1990 levels in 2012, the most recent official London climate inventory data show. But that wasn't on target - emissions were supposed to have fallen 14.5 per cent that year, according to the mayor's climate plan.

This year emissions may be 17 per cent below 1990 levels, Carbon Brief projections suggest, assuming recent trends have continued. This would be more than one million tonnes short of the mayor's interim goal for a 20 per cent reduction by 2015.

Back in 2011, Johnson announced that London would aim to cut its emissions 60 per cent by 2025, on 1990 levels. Carbon Brief projections suggest this target will be missed by a wide margin unless something changes, with London on track for just a 40 per cent cut.

London lags, not leads on climate

The mayor's 2025 climate target and interim goals for 2015 and 2020 were set out in Delivering London's Energy Future, his climate change mitigation and energy strategy. This explained how the targets would be met through action by the mayor's office along with private initiatives and national government policies.

The 60 per cent London target was and remains more ambitious than that set for the UK as a whole, which is aiming for a 50 per cent reduction by 2023-27.

The mayor's strategy said London should take a leadership role in tackling climate change. However, progress so far shows London lagging the UK as a whole. London's had achieved a 10 per cent carbon reduction in 2012, significantly less than the rest of the UK which saw emissions 25 per cent below 1990 levels in the same year.


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Germany makes slow but steady progress towards ambitious climate goals

  • 07 Jan 2015, 13:10
  • Mat Hope

German wind turbine | Shutterstock

In 2010, Germany set out a range of ambitious policies to cut emissions and decarbonise its energy sector. Four years on,  new figures show the programme, known as the  Energiewende or 'energy transition', is making slow but steady progress.

It has not been easy. Earlier this year, there was  speculation that Germany might abandon its emissions reduction target as it struggled to cut coal use.

It didn't. Instead, the government unveiled a new, refreshed  climate action plan laying out some changes to the programme.

Thinktank  Agora Energiewende* has compiled new figures showing that while Germany's direction of travel is clear, reforms are vital if the country is going to hit its climate goals.

Incremental progress

Perhaps the most striking thing about the figures is how gradual the changes to Germany's energy sector appear on an annual basis. Most power sources only increased or decreased electricity production by a single per cent in the past year.

But there are a few important differences between now and twelve months ago.

This year was the first time renewable sources produced more electricity than lignite power plants, which burn a particularly carbon-intensive type of coal. Wind, solar, hydropower and biomass power plants combined produced over a quarter of Germany's electricity in 2014.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 10.19.52.png
Source: Agora Energiewende,  State of Affairs 2014

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What falling oil prices may mean for the future of renewable energy investment

  • 06 Jan 2015, 10:00
  • Mat Hope & Rosamund Pearce

Oil rig moonlight | Shutterstock

Oil prices have plummeted in recent months, with the price of oil today hitting its  lowest point for five years. That's led to lots of speculation about the impact of falling oil prices on the world's efforts to cut emissions by decarbonising the energy sector.

There's little consensus. Some analysts argue that the falling oil price could end the world's slow march towards zero carbon energy. Others say renewables are established enough to see out the storm.

There are good reasons for such uncertainty. The renewable energy industry's fate rests on a number of factors that are very hard to predict.

We take you through the key elements of what's likely to continue to be a major story in coming months.


The impact of falling oil prices on renewables varies in different parts of the world.

Renewables generate  about a fifth of the UK's electricity. Only 0.06 per cent comes from oil. It's a similar story in the US, where oil generates about  one per cent of electricity. Where oil and renewable electricity  aren't really competing, the falling oil price is  unlikely to have a major impact, in the short term at least.

But that's not the case everywhere in the world. Oil accounted for about  10 per cent of electricity production in Central and South America in 2012, and about  29 per cent in the Middle East. Here, renewables compete with oil as an electricity source. Renewables have historically been  squeezed out of the generating mix when that's the case.

Will -oil -slump -kill -renewables

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Old coal and gas plants won largest share of capacity market, final results confirm

  • 05 Jan 2015, 16:15
  • Simon Evans

An auction designed to ensure security of electricity supplies in winter 2018/19 will mainly benefit existing nuclear, gas and coal-fired power stations, final results published on Friday confirm.

Some 49 gigawatts of generating capacity secured contracts under the new capacity market. They will be paid £19.40 per kilowatt in return for promising to be available during periods of peak demand in winter 2018/19 at a total cost of nearly £1 billion. Average households will pay £11 each with business and industry picking up the remainder.

We took at look at the preliminary results back in December.

Final results

The final results were announced on 2 January and include a detailed spreadsheet listing all the plants that participated, those that secured contracts and the contract lengths. The key outcomes will be of wide interest because the UK's is the EU's first, but almost certainly not the last, capacity market. Poland and Germany are among those considering similar policies.

First, the vast majority of contracts were for a single year and went to existing capacity. (We've got the breakdown below.) This raises the obvious question of whether the capacity market was actually needed to ensure these plants stayed open.

Second, only a single large new power station won a contract. This is the 1,656 megawatt gas-fired plant at Trafford in Manchester. The government trailed the capacity market primarily as a way to incentivise the newbuild gas capacity that it says is needed to back up intermittent renewable electricity supplies.

Third, less than 1 per cent of the capacity secured came from demand-side response firms offering to cut demand when the grid is under strain. These firms have argued a greater role for the demand side would save consumers money and cut carbon.

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Capacity market secures some new gas while providing stay of execution to old coal

  • 19 Dec 2014, 08:20
  • Mat Hope

Didcot power station | Andrew Smith

  • Government agrees to pay companies £19.40 per kilowatt to keep fossil fuel power plants available
  • Only five per cent of projects included in capacity market are new builds
  • Coal and biomass plants account for 20 per cent of the capacity made available under the market
  • Scheme expected to add £11 to consumer bills, of which only 54 pence goes towards building new, less carbon intensive, capacity

A new government policy designed to ensure the UK's future energy supply appears to have successfully incentivised companies to build over two gigawatts of new gas power, to sit alongside nine gigawatts of coal and biomass power. It should ensure the UK will have at least 48.6 gigawatts of fossil fuel power stations available in 2018.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change today released the  results of its first capacity market auction. It guarantees new gas plants will get paid £19.40 for each kilowatt of power capacity companies make available at the flick of a switch. The auction's biggest winner was gas power, with around 25 gigawatts of new and existing gas power plants receiving contracts.

But only five per cent of the capacity that secured contracts will be newly built, leading to concerns that the UK could be locked into using high carbon power sources during the 2020s.

While some have emphasised the lower than expected price as good for consumers, it may also have a knock-on effect on the UK's decarbonisation plans. We take a look at the auction's result, and what it may mean for the UK's future energy mix.

The capacity market

The government introduced the capacity market to try and ensure there is always enough power generating capacity available to meet demand, even when intermittent renewables are generating less electricity. The capacity market offers companies a set price if they promise to keep a particular amount of generation available, should it be needed.

To agree the price, this week the government conducted a 'descending auction'. The auction took place over four days, with the government and companies eventually settling on a price of £19.40 per kilowatt yesterday afternoon.



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