Analysis

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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Six charts that show how challenging decarbonising the UK really is

  • 31 Jul 2014, 14:20
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Keith Laverack

Despite a surge in renewables and plummeting energy use the UK remains a long way from the green energy champion it must become if we are to reach our ambitious climate targets, new data from the department for energy and climate change (DECC) shows.

Today DECC published the 2013 version of its annual energy data bible DUKES, the digest of UK energy statistics. It's a veritable gold mine of fascinating stories about who's using the most energy and where it comes from.

We already took a sneak peak at provisional data back in February that showed electricity from wind on the up, but coal and gas still dominating. Now with the help of the final stats, here are six charts that give you the big picture of the UK's progress towards a greener energy future.

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What does the state aid ruling on UK energy subsidies mean?

  • 30 Jul 2014, 11:25
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Nick Page

Last week two UK energy subsidy schemes got the green light. They are at the heart of government plans to cut energy emissions while minimising consumer bills and keeping the lights on.

But before the UK could press ahead with its plans it needed approval under EU rules designed to prevent government support or 'state aid' that unfairly favours particular industries.

It's all an "immensely complicated business" according to Conservative peer Lord Jenkin who says he's spent many months trying to understand the details of the government's reforms.

We didn't want to do the same - and you probably don't either. So we asked for help from state aid legal expert Erika Szyszczak, barrister at Littleton Chambers and professor of law at the University of Sussex.

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Q & A - everything you need to know about UK fracking

  • 28 Jul 2014, 12:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Push Europe

About half the country is being opened up to fracking for shale gas and oil today, various newspapers reported this morning. Here's everything you need to know about UK fracking.

What's shale gas?

Shale gas is normal gas, extracted from shale rock using a technique known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing of the rock. Our full briefing on the fuel is here .

What has been announced today?

The government has opened the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round. A licensing round is when firms get the chance to apply for exclusive rights to search for and extract oil and gas from beneath blocks of land measuring 10 by 10 kilometres.

The round announced today closes on 28 October this year. The last round was held six years ago when few had heard of fracking.

It is only four years since the first exploratory well to look for shale gas in the UK was sunk. Seismic tremors caused by early shale exploration operations in 2011 delayed the launch of the 14th licensing round, preparations for which had also begun in 2010.

Today's announcement and any licenses handed out as a result do not grant permission to actually start fracking. Other regulatory permissions are required first - see below.

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Europe’s coal plants could stay open despite air pollution rules

  • 25 Jul 2014, 17:25
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Rich

There is a widely held view that tough EU air pollution rules will force most coal-fired power stations to close by the early 2020s. But that simply isn't true, according to campaign group Sandbag.

It explains why in a new report called " Europe's failure to quit coal". Its plant-by-plant analysis finds that 110 gigawatts of EU coal capacity - nearly three-quarters of the total - will be able to stay open despite air pollution rules.

The remaining 40 gigawatts could stay open too, Sandbag says, with 14 gigawatts of that in the UK. It adds that recent policy changes make it more attractive for UK plant to continue to operate.

We've taken a look at why Sandbag says everyone's been getting it wrong on coal.

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Why measuring fugitive methane emissions from shale gas production matters

  • 24 Jul 2014, 14:40
  • Mat Hope

CC 2.0 Tim Evanson

As an ever-increasing number of countries consider exploiting their shale gas resources, and researchers scramble to understand what a production boom could mean for the climate, two new pieces of research appear to come to opposite conclusions.

What is the climate impact of shale gas?

Since gas has about half the emissions of coal when it's burned for electricity, it has been touted as  a 'bridging fuel' for countries seeking to decarbonise their economies to use as a stop gap on the way to a low carbon electricity system.

But as we've  explored before, scientists are struggling to establish the full impact of increased shale gas production on the climate, due to methane that escapes during the extraction process - known as fugitive methane emissions.

Two papers released this month examine what the actual climate impact of natural gas is. At first glance they seem to show opposite things. The graph on the left, taken from a paper by Robert Howarth appears to show natural gas electricity generation emissions - the towering left bar - can be much higher than coal's. The second graph, from  Heath et al, appears to show the opposite - that coal's generation emissions (on the left) are much higher than those from both conventional and shale gas.

Howarth Vs Heath Coal And Gas Emissions

Both papers examine the 'lifecycle emissions' of the fuels: the amount of gas emitted from extraction to combustion. So why is there such a large discrepancy between two papers?

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UK and Germany top ‘dirty 30’ league of coal plants

  • 22 Jul 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Gareth Davies

The UK and Germany are ranked joint first  - or last, depending on your perspective - in a new league table of Europe's 30 most polluting coal-fired power stations.

The ranking comes from several NGOs including WWF and the European Environmental Bureau. They're using it to argue for specific anti-coal policies, saying Europe won't meet its climate targets without them.

We take a look at what they want, and why.

Europe's biggest emitters

The NGOs have listed the EU's top 30 emitters of carbon dioxide in 2013, dubbing the contenders the "dirty 30". All of them are coal-fired power stations.

The UK and Germany both have nine coal plants on the list, putting them joint top of the league table. If you count up the emissions for each country, however, Germany comes out top because its coal plants are generally larger than the UK's and burn more coal.

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Factcheck: Do climate worriers use more electricity?

  • 18 Jul 2014, 11:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Jon Mould

The Telegraph and the Mail say people concerned about climate change use more electricity than those who think the issue is too distant to worry about, according to new research.

The Telegraph quotes Conservative MP Peter Lilley:

"The survey exposes the hypocrisy of many who claim to be 'green': the greater the concern people express about global warming the less they do to reduce their energy usage."

But Lilley's strong conclusions are not supported by the study in question, which comes with some significant caveats. The researchers themselves say there's no significant effect of people's beliefs:

"None of the stated attitudes about environmental or climate change had any significant  impact on overall energy use when household age was taken into account."

Let's take a look at what the study says, and what it doesn't.

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