UK Q2 data shows renewables met a record 25% of power needs, outstripping coal

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A doubling of the U.K.’s solar PV capacity in just 12 months helped the renewable energy sector outstrip coal in the country’s power mix for the second quarter of the year, according to data published yesterday by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Solar’s cumulative capacity in the U.K. stood at 8 GW at the end of June, DECC’s figures confirmed, reaching 3.2 TWh of total generation – a 115% increase on Q2 2014.

The total share of renewable power in the country’s generation mix reached a record 25%, placing clean power second behind natural gas, which supplied 30% of power in Q2. Coal slipped to fourth on 20.5%, behind renewables for the first time ever, as coal-fired power plants were idled and phased out. Nuclear power was the third-most voluminous energy source, supplying 21.5% of the U.K.’s electricity.

Solar’s growing role in the energy transition will have surprised few renewable advocates, many of whom have long pushed for a little more support for the technology to help it reach grid parity with fossil fuels.

However, DECC revealed over the summer that it is proposing to reduce the successful FIT for small-scale solar installations by up to 87% from January 1, 2016. This move could see the pace at which residential and commercial rooftop installations – which make up a large chunk of the U.K.’s solar portfolio – tail off significantly.

Earlier in the year, DECC also confirmed that it will end the Renewable Obligation (RO) scheme for solar farms smaller than 5 MW a year early. The RO will no longer be available for these arrays from April 1, 2016.

DECC defends cuts

The depth of DECC’s cuts have been roundly criticized, but the data published yesterday was warmly welcomed by the country’s clean energy advocates.

RenewableUK’s chief executive Maria McCaffery said that the statistics show that the U.K. is "relying increasingly on dependable renewable sources to keep the country powered up", pointing to the role onshore and offshore wind has played in underpinning the sector’s growth. Wind power has grown 65% in the past 12 months.

She added, however, that if ministers want to continue publishing such encouraging data, "they have to knuckle down, listen to the high level of public support we enjoy, and start making positive announcements."

That "public support" is famously thoroughly behind solar PV, with DECC’s own surveys revealing that the British public favor solar over any other form of electricity generation. However, despite a concerted effort by the solar industry and its supporters to convince the government to re-think its proposals to slash subsidy, DECC responded this week to a petition stating that the new FIT levels should provide sufficient returns of "between 4% and 9%" for homeowners and businesses.

A DECC spokeswoman, in presenting the data, said: "Government support has driven down the cost of renewable energy significantly and these statistics show that has successfully enabled renewables to compete with other technologies.

"Our priority is now to move towards a low-carbon economy whilst ensuring subsidies are used where they are needed most, which provides the best value for money for hardworking bill payers."

But even beyond the solar industry, DECC’s actions have caused consternation and bafflement, with Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson critical of the FIT cut, former U.S. VP Al Gore labeling the government’s stance as ‘puzzling’, and the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), John Cridland saying that the cuts “send a worrying signal about the U.K. as a place for low-carbon investment."

With support for solar all-but scaled right back, it has been particularly galling for clean energy advocates in the U.K. to see energy secretary Amber Rudd confirm a £2 billion loan guarantee ($3.04 billion) for the controversial Hinkley Point nuclear power station, citing the project’s "value for money".

British chancellor George Osborne also backed the move, which will see the power station be built to the tune of around £16 billion ($24.3 billion), with France’s EDF and China’s National Nuclear Corporation frontrunners to develop the project.