Solar outshines nuclear as spring sun boosts UK output
Renewable power generation tops 40% on Friday, overtaking gas.
Solar power accounted for almost a quarter of electricity generated in the UK at lunchtime on Friday — a record that exceeded the combined output of the country’s eight nuclear power stations.
An almost cloudless late spring day across Britain sent solar output soaring to 8.7 gigawatts, or 24.3 per cent of overall electricity generation, compared with about 23 per cent from nuclear power.
The new peak highlighted the surge in solar installations in the UK — especially sunnier southern regions — aided by government subsidies and an 80 per cent fall in the price of solar panels since 2009.
When wind, biomass and hydro were added, almost 40 per cent of UK electricity came from renewables at Friday’s peak, exceeding the 30 per cent from gas and just 1.4 per cent from coal.
Soaring amounts of renewable energy are advancing UK efforts to tackle climate change — carbon dioxide emissions fell by almost 6 per cent last year — and increasing competition for conventional power generators.
As solar power flooded the system on Friday, wholesale electricity prices for the day ahead traded at about £38 per megawatt hour, compared with about £50 p/mwh in spring 2013 before fossil fuel prices went into sharp decline.
Increasing supplies of cheap solar power are intensifying debate over the future of UK energy policy as work proceeds on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset — Britain’s first new nuclear plant since the 1990s — which has been promised a guaranteed price of £92.50 p/mwh, rising with inflation for 35 years. Friday’s peak solar output was almost three times greater than the planned 3.2GW generating capacity of Hinkley.
Duncan Hawthorne, chief executive of Horizon, a Japanese-owned company planning to build another new nuclear plant in Wales, told a Financial Times energy conference this week that the UK would still need nuclear power to provide reliable baseload electricity when wind and solar is unavailable.
“If you do not want to replace [existing] nuclear, then you will have to fill in the gap and I guarantee it will not be solar and it will not be wind,” he said. “They can do part of it but not all of it.”
Critics of nuclear power claim that increasing renewable output coupled with advances in battery storage can account for much of the coal and old nuclear generating capacity due to be decommissioned in coming years.
“It’s increasingly recognised that renewables like wind and solar are among the cheapest options for generating power in the UK, and it is also clear that they can be the foundation of a stable and reliable energy system,” said Alasdair Cameron of Friends of the Earth.
For now, National Grid, the UK electricity system operator, relies heavily on flexible gas-fired power stations to smooth out fluctuations in renewable supplies.
“We have planned for these changes to the energy landscape and have the tools available to ensure we can balance supply and demand,” said Duncan Burt, head of control room operations for National Grid. “It really is the beginning of a new era, which we are prepared for.”
National Grid said last month that it may have to pay wind farms and conventional power plants to reduce output over the summer to prevent high levels of solar generation from destabilising the system. This contrasts with the winter months when gas and coal-fired plants receive extra payments to guarantee adequate capacity on dark and windless days.
Further peaks in solar are expected during the summer as more capacity is added. However, installations are slowing sharply after the withdrawal of some subsidies in response to the falling price of solar technology. Deployments of rooftop solar panels fell by three-quarters in the first quarter of this year compared with 2016.
The Solar Trade Association, which represents the UK industry, said reduced subsidies and higher taxes were threatening to stall further growth in the sector.