As the battle for the UK's power supply rages, solar beats coal for a day


The good old days for the U.K.’s coal industry were over a long time ago. The only landmark events that the high-carbon industry can look forward to now are those outlining its decline, and another one of these came last weekend, as solar PV produced more electricity than coal over the course of a full day for the first time. Then it did it again the next day.

The data, compiled by climate analysts Carbon Brief, showed that solar generated 29 GWh of electricity on Saturday 9 April 2016, which accounted for 4% of the energy mix that day, while coal generated just 21 GWh, which was 3% of the day’s energy mix. The pendulum swung even further in solar’s favor on the Sunday, as it accounted for 6% of the electricity generated, while coal remained stuck on 3%.

The statistics are likely to get worse for U.K. coal, as the industry’s steady decline since 2012 is only getting steeper. A huge hike in carbon tax, combined with falling electricity prices, has been particularly lethal for the industry, which has seen a number of large coal plants closed recently and more set for closure in the coming months.

“The most important reason for coal’s struggles is falling wholesale gas prices, down nearly 20% since the start of the year and 40% since the start of 2015,” Carbon Brief said in its analysis. “This has pushed down wholesale electricity prices.”

To add to the coal industry’s woes, U.K. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd announced at the end of 2015, that the U.K. would phase out coal generation by 2025. There is a consultation due to take place this spring on when to close all coal-fired power stations in the U.K. that are not able to limit their carbon emissions.

“Our consultation will set out proposals to close coal by 2025 – and restrict its use from 2023,” said Rudd. “If we take this step, we will be one of the first developed countries to deliver our commitment to take coal off the system.”

This has resulted in coal consistently supplying less that 10% of the U.K.’s electricity on any given day in 2016, which is only likely to get worse due to seasonal changes. Energy analyst at Jefferies International bank, Peter Atherton, said that, due to the coal plant closures, there will be less than 10GW coal capacity in the U.K. when the winter begins.

U.K.’s energy mix up in the air

The decline in the coal industry is coupled with a rise in the country’s renewable energies, and in particular a recent rise in solar. In fact, renewables overtook coal in 2015 as the second biggest source of electricity in the U.K. Speaking about the country’s solar generation, Carbon Brief said “Output in the first quarter of 2016 is up 20-50% on the previous year. This reflects the rush to build solar in April 2015, along with variations in the weather.”

With the summer rearing its head, there will be warmer weather and longer sunlight hours, so it will be the perfect time for the newly installed solar PV to flex its muscles, and we can expect to see more encouraging output statistics.

However, it’s far from plain sailing for the country’s solar PV industry, as the government has slashed subsidies for both large-scale PV projects, and distributed solar systems. This has resulted in a virtual halting of large-scale PV investment in the U.K., and a 65% reduction in the installation of distributed solar during February and March 2016.

“It is one of the cheapest major renewables and the most popular with the British public, so why the U.K. government has stepped back from supporting this winning technology is difficult to understand” said a spokeswoman for the Solar Trade Industry.

This move is indicative of a country that is searching for its energy identity. There is a certain level of uncertainty and inconsistency with its support, or lack of, for most of the major energy sources, which is perhaps summed up by the raging debate over the controversial Hinkley Point nuclear station. The incredibly expensive facility is estimated to cost GBP24bn ($34bn), but, just last week, thinktank the Intergenerational Foundation projected that the U.K. would save GBP 40bn over the next 35 years if the money for the station is invested in solar instead.

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