On 21 April 2017, Great Britain went for 24 hours without generating electricity from coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution in the 1880s.
This was a highly symbolic development, brought about by low gas prices and the carbon tax forcing coal off the system, demonstrating one aspect of a rapidly changing energy system.
In addition 2016 saw the biggest-ever shift in the power generated by different fuels – coal (9% of generation) fell behind wind (10%) for the first time and 2017 is already a record-breaker for renewables including wind, hydro and biomass (highest ever quarterly outputs) and solar (highest peak power output), along with record lows for coal.
The effects of Brexit, the challenge of meeting the decarbonisation commitments agreed in Paris in 2015 are also intensifying the transformation of the energy landscape.
With 65% of the power we produce now coming from sustainable biomass, we are the UK’s largest single site renewable generator, providing 16% of the UK’s total renewable power – enough to power four million households.
The whole system is at a tipping point and government forecasts predict increased electricity use from 2026 onwards – the rise of electric vehicles will no doubt contribute to this.
Solar and wind will play a vital role in meeting the increase in demand and reducing emissions. But they are also contributing to changing patterns of energy demand, where the traditional predictable ‘peak times’ are being replaced with more ‘spikes’ in demand.
For example, for the first time ever, the amount of electricity demanded by homes and businesses on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the end of March was lower than it was in the night, because solar panels on rooftops and in fields cut demand so much.
But peak solar output is generally in the middle of the day when the sun is at its brightest – not in the early morning or evening when traditional peaks in demand occur as people wake up or come home from work.
Until we have batteries effective enough to store the power produced by solar and wind power in the quantities required, these intermittent renewables will require support from other energy sources to deliver the power we need, when we need it.
The work to develop battery technology is underway, but we need power now which is flexible enough to flex up and down to meet those spikes in demand and cope with the increasing need for low-carbon, reliable power.
2017 is already a record breaker for renewables including wind, hydro and biomass (highest ever quarterly outputs) and solar (highest peak power output), along with record lows for coal.
Drax is leading the way in helping the UK to meet these changing energy needs. We have upgraded half of our power station in North Yorkshire to run on compressed wood pellets – a form of biomass. With 65% of the power we produce now coming from sustainable
biomass, we are the UK’s largest single site renewable generator, providing 16% of the UK’s total renewable power – enough to power four million households.
This type of large-scale, thermal power generation will be needed for some years to come and requires a reliable supply chain that can deliver the compressed wood pellets in the quantities required.
The sustainable wood pellets we use are sourced from responsibly managed working forests in north America and Europe. They are delivered to the UK via ports on the West and East coasts, including ABP’s ports at Immingham and Hull.
Independent studies by NERA Economic Research and Imperial College show that when the ‘hidden costs’ of intermittent renewables are taken into account, adding more biomass to the energy mix could save bill payers £2.2 billion.
The savings could be even greater because Drax’s biomass provides power with half the level of Government support provided to other large-scale renewables such as offshore wind.
In addition to our biomass fuelled power, we are committed to the development of four small rapid response gas power stations. These Open Cycle Gas Turbines (OCGTs) could be running at full capacity from a cold start in just 10 minutes – ideal for the flexible power needed for the future. Two of our new OCGT projects could be running as soon as 2020, to be used at times of system stress, such as when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing – to plug the gaps created by intermittent renewables.
With a clear energy strategy the UK electricity sector will continue to provide the reliable power we need to keep the lights on and our factories and offices working, as well as the flexible power needed to ensure electric vehicles and other devices can be charged, whatever the weather.