UK’s fortnight of “coal-free” electricity comes with a hitch…and cable

The United Kingdom recently celebrated its first coal-free fortnight of electricity since the 19th century.

Renewable champions point to this achievement as a turning point toward clean energy domination of the UK grid and a sign to all nations that it could be done. But that was not all the story.

The UK did achieve its milestone without input from any in-nation coal-fired plants, which was a testament to both its move toward renewables and, not least, natural gas-fired generation. Yet critics have pointed out that the island also receives some of its power from coal-fired generation in Europe via subsea mega-capacity cables.

“While the coal-free UK generation of electricity is a massive achievement, we need to be aware that coal-fired power imported from Europe was still being used to power this country,” Mark Wilson, CEO of Scottish firm ILI Group, said in a press release. “We eliminated coal-powered generation from within the UK-not because we didn’t need the power, but because carbon-taxing in the UK had made coal-fired production unprofitable at the market price over the past two weeks.”

In other words, Wilson added, the UK out-sourced its coal-fired production to nations, such as Netherlands and Germany, where coal generation is not hit by the same level of carbon taxation.

UK electricity links to Europe have multiplied in recent years, even as the specter of Brexit looms large and uncertain. It already had connectors with France, Ireland and the Netherlands and added another cable link with Belgium earlier this year.

The Netherlands gets a sizable portion of its power from coal-fired plants, including three which opened in 2015-16. As part of its “energiewende” (translated as “energy transition), German leaders have vowed to close coal-fired plants and eliminate use of the resource in coming years. However, coal still accounts for more energy production than all low-carbon resources combined, according to a 2016 report by CarbonBrief.

In the ILI press release, former UK Energy Minister Brian Wilson said it makes sense to develop its own solutions rather than rely on interconnectors. ILI is a pumped storage hydro company.

Its CEO, Mark Wilson, argued the case that pumped storage hydro allows the grid to store energy that cannot be absorbed natural by consumers during times of peak wind or solar generation.

“With our 2 GW of pumped storage hydro and other proposed schemes we will create the environment for better utilization and larger deployment of renewable generation, reducing reliance on imports from European interconnectors,” he said. 

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The Future of Coal-Fired Generation and Renewables Solar-Wind and Hydro will all be part of the content presented at POWERGEN International Nov. 18-21 in New Orleans. 



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