A report by Carbon Brief on Monday 14 October headlines that “UK renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels for first time” — an exciting prospect. Digging deeper, the picture is more complex.
The report concerns the third quarter of 2019, and it shows “renewables” a hairline over fossil fuels in generation, each contributing roughly two fifths, and nuclear the final fifth.
But generation is not the same as consumption. The UK is a net importer of electricity, with fossil fuels providing a greater share in the imports.
And counted in the renewables is biomass, which is not “low carbon”. Whereas nuclear is not renewable, but is “low carbon”.
Really Existing Biomass, over its whole life cycle, leads to a large quantity of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Even on an ideal model, Biomass creates more CO2 per unit energy than coal, only offset by a promise of CO2 being extracted by trees at a future date. The necessity of cutting emissions now gives the lie to its green pretensions.
UK’s biomass power stations consume more wood than the whole of the UK grows every year. Most of it is shipped half way across the world, from north America, on fossil-powered boats. Even worse, deforestation often causes major soil degradation, releasing CO2 and limiting the ability to grow a new forest.
The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official advisers, rightly said the UK should “move away” from large-scale biomass power plants. Biomass is about 30% of the UK’s renewable-sourced electricity.
It is true that low carbon power (including nuclear) has generated more energy than high carbon power this year.
In the UK in 2010, fossil fuels generated around three quarters, with nuclear making up most of the rest.
Coal power stations transitioning to biomass — a questionable improvement — has been one of the big changes. The other has been the construction of large-scale offshore wind farms. This month, the “Hornsea One project” was completed, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, contributing 1,200 megawatts.
The UK government is constructing, and planning to construct, a whole new generation of gas power stations. These are intended to run for a minimum of thirty years, locking us into fossil fuel dependency at a time when we need to be moving away.
We must demand that the government abandon these plans, invest in rapid expansion of low-carbon energy, and decommission fossil and biomass power stations.
What has been done already has been in many ways easier, in terms of government policy and spending, than the next steps of the transition. Energy sources available at any time, but variable at will, are needed in an energy grid. Carbon-powered electricity is easier to run at any chosen time, and at controlled variable rates, than say wind farms. The current government strategy depends on gas and biomass for that “baseload” element.
This need for constantly running energy is especially acute in a privatised and insufficiently co-ordinated energy system. Privatisation has contributed to insufficient investment in upgrading grid technology to “smart-grid” responsive technology. Additionally, co-ordination mediated by price-signalling through the energy market is not just blunter than democratic control but encourages irrational behaviour. Irrational, that is, from the perspective of energy consumers.
We must fight for the socialisation of energy — for it to be taken into public, democratic control — to facilitate these transitions.
The UK’s transition is failing much more starkly in other sectors like transport than it is in energy. There will not be a natural or inevitable progress in these areas, as some people might, superficially, conclude from energy. In many, emissions have been going up.
The transition must be fought for: in our workplaces, on the streets, in our Labour branches, and beyond.