For the first time ever, the UK’s solar panels produced more energy in a month than all of the coal plants in the country during the whole of May.
Throughout the month, the power output from coal was around 893 gigawatt hours, while the output from solar panels was just shy of 50% higher, at an estimated 1,336 GWh.
These figures come from climate thinktank Carbon Brief, who described them as marking an important milestone. “While these milestones are largely symbolic”, they said, “they do highlight the major changes going on in the UK electricity system.”
Their figures show that this first full month with solar beating coal has followed fairly swiftly on the heels of “the first full day on 9 April 2016, and the first week from 2 May 2016”.
Coal power is in the process of being phased out in the UK, having once been an integral part of our energy mix, with plants closing up and down the country. The closure of the large Longannet plant back in March of this year marked the end of all coal-based power stations in Scotland, and the same is set to be the case for the whole of the UK within the next 9 years.
The current plan is to have all unabated coal power stations shut down by 2025, although green conservative thinktank Bright Blue published a report on Wednesday arguing that this date should be brought forward by two years.
The former conservative energy minister and member of Bright Blue, Lord Greg Barker, said: “Thanks to a Conservative government, the UK is now committed to taking dirty, polluting coal out of our energy mix completely. So we should take maximum advantage of this bold move.”
He argued that a stronger focus on green energy technologies would create a better and more certain environment for potential investors in such industries, creating a strong platform to further improve our renewable portfolio.
And the report’s author, Ben Caldecott, assured readers that the phasing out of coal power stations, “even under a ‘high stress’ scenario, will not result in the lights going out.”
The ‘high stress’ scenario referred to is one in which the rolling out of renewable generators is slow, the closure of coal stations is brought forward, and EDF’s nuclear plant at Hinkley Point fails to get off the ground.
He said: “Our analysis shows the significant benefits for pollution and system security of further encouraging renewables, interconnection, storage, demand side response and energy efficiency.”
And the report itself recommended: “The UK should take the lead in promoting coal phase-out internationally. The UK has significant technical and moral leadership it can deploy to encourage other countries to agree to a coordinated phased approach for closing down coal-fired power stations. The world’s climate future really does hinge on what other countries do with their coal fleets.”
The arguments made by Bright Blue are bolstered by these latest figures from Carbon Brief, showing that our reliance on coal in terms of securing an energy supply in the short term is already falling.
In fact, throughout early May, output from coal power stations actually dropped to zero four times, including on one day for more than 12 hours. This is the first time this has happened for more than 120 years.
And as our reliance on coal falls, our reliance on renewables grows.
During the latter stages of 2015, just over a quarter of all of our energy came from renewables, predominantly from wind farms.
While government subsidies for solar power have been slashed, and barriers are in the way of more onshore wind farms being built, there are plans to increase our offshore wind capacity, including plans to build what will be the world’s largest floating offshore turbine setup off the coast of Scotland.
The government continues to give support to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, though, despite some local opposition. And concern about the government’s general approach to renewables has somewhat stymied investment, according to analysts.
According to Ben Warren at Ernst and Young: “the attractiveness of the UK’s renewable energy sector [is] on a landslide. The current approach is going against the grain of almost universal global support for renewables.”
According to a recent report, the UK was among the top five countries in terms of cash value of investment in renewables in 2015, after a 25% increase over the year. However, much of this data was collected before large subsidy cuts to the solar industry, and so next year’s figures could tell a rather different story.