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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Why the UK producing half its electricity from gas

The eyewatering spike in the cost of gas is painful for domestic consumers and businesses.

The wholesale price last week was 500% higher than it was at the start of the year.

It’s a global price of course, so all countries are affected. But when it comes to generating electricity some are better insulated against the impact.

Let’s start by looking at the UK.

Data from the National Grid shows that at lunchtime on Monday 51% of electricity was generated using gas.

Wind, solar and hydroelectric accounted for 25%, nuclear just under 12% and coal a little over 1%.

We’re burning a lot more gas now than last October, when it was used to generate 38% of electricity.

The sharp rise has been just as prices have surged.

We’ve had to turn to gas because the amount generated by nuclear has almost halved since this time last year – several reactors are currently offline because of unplanned maintenance.

So how does the UK compare to Germany and France?

Well, France is heavily reliant on nuclear energy, which generated 71% of its electricity at lunchtime on Monday.

Germany still generates most of its power from coal. Pic: AP
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Germany still generates a lot of its power from coal-fired stations. Pic: AP

Gas accounted for just 10%, so the direct impact of the price spike on consumers is much lower.

Germany turned off much of its nuclear capacity after the Fukushima accident, but replaced it with coal. The dirtiest of all the fossil fuels was used to generate 32% of its electricity at lunchtime.

Such heavy use of coal comes with a huge climate cost.

According to a report for the UK parliament, coal produces the equivalent of around 800g of carbon dioxide per kilowatt of energy.

That’s twice as much as gas.

Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said it would be wrong for the UK to follow Germany’s lead and fire up coal plants.

“Coal just does not fit inside the carbon budgets that we have, nor the international commitments that we are signing up to,” he told Sky News.

“And on the economics point it is cheaper than gas at the minute, but the lesson from the gas crisis is that fossil fuel prices are very volatile – so coal could become very expensive another time.

Wind turbines at Whitelee Windfarm in East Renfrewshire
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Low wind speeds in recent months have added to the energy crunch

“Rather than trying to pick the least-worst fossil fuel and hoping it stays cheap, you should be trying to move away from fossil fuel to home-grown renewables.”

The UK is rapidly expanding the amount it generates from wind. But wind speeds in recent months have been much lower than average and that has added to the energy crunch.

As the UK dials down its use of gas in the global shift to net-zero it will need to find other reliable sources of low-carbon energy.

A new generation of nuclear reactors looks highly likely to provide the baseload, then there’ll need to be a diverse mix of renewable energy, generated at home and abroad, to keep the lights on without polluting the planet.

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