Growth in UK clean electricity output looks set to accelerate over the decade despite a temporary pause between H1 2019 and H1 2021.
A new report from thinktank Ember found that growth in clean electricity output stalled as a result of poor wind conditions in H1 2021 and extended nuclear outages, offsetting the structural growth in wind capacity.
Wind had a particularly strong 2020, setting a new generation record in H2 2020 when Storm Francis pushed wind power to produce 59.9% of the country’s electricity at 1.30am on 26 August, producing 14.2GW. However, this was in fact beaten in May 2021 when wind generated 17.7GW between 3.30-4:30pm.
The pause of clean electricity output growth led to a rebound in gas power (+31%) in H1 2021 compared to H1 2020, although dampened demand meant that fossil gas generation was still 8% lower and coal 17% lower than in H1 2019.
Electricity demand in the UK didn’t fully recover to pre-pandemic levels in H1 2021 and remained 2% below (-3TWh) H1 2019.
Ember also found that, due to rising fossil gas prices, the cost of producing electricity from existing fossil gas power plants in the UK – around £82/MWh as of 30 June - is now more than double the cost of electricity from new onshore wind installations - £38/MWh – and significantly above the £57/MWh the UK government estimates for offshore wind deployed in 2025.
This echoes Ember's findings when looking at other neighbouring countries, having examined the 27 countries in the EU – excluding Malta – for the report.
Like the UK, wind is providing to be considerably cheaper than fossil fuels, with electricity production costs from new onshore wind farms in Germany (€45.3/MWh) and Italy (€46.3/MWh) being half those of existing fossil fuel gas and hard coal plants.
In Spain, the costs of generating electricity from existing fossil gas and hard coal plants are triple those for new onshore wind (€31.7/MWh) and double those for new solar PV (€39/MWh).
Charles Moore, European programme lead, Ember, said that now the impact of COVID-19 on the power sector has passed, the trend of the rapid decline of fossil fuels is clear.
"But progress is nowhere near fast enough to meet the EU’s own emissions target, let alone reach 100% clean electricity by 2035. There’s never been a better time to accelerate the transition to wind and solar with the costs of sticking with fossils painfully clear," he said.
Ember found that as a whole, electricity demand has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, although electricity generation from fossil fuels has not recovered as well, being 10% lower in H1 2021 than before the pandemic.
Fossil fuels were kept down by an 11% increase in renewable electricity output in H1 2021 compared to H1 2019, with this driven by structural growth in wind and solar (+22TWh) and strong hydro output (+29TWh).
Solar output grew by 9% between H1 2020 and H1 2021, and has expanded by over a quarter (+27%) since H1 2019 largely due to rapid growth in Spain, the Netherlands and to a lesser extent Germany and Poland.
Wind output grew just 3% (+6TWh) compared to H1 2019 as a result of unfavourable wind conditions in H1 2021, and fell between H1 2020 and H1 2021 despite a 6% increase in installed capacity in 2020.
Together, wind and solar provided 20% of total electricity production in the EU in H1 2021, up from 18% in H1 2019. However, their combined generation was 3% lower in H1 2021 than in H1 2020. Clean electricity increased to provide two-thirds (66%) of EU-27’s power in H1 2021, up by 3 percentage points (+24TWh) from H1-2019.
However, Ember said that year-on-year progress must double throughout the next decade for the EU to reach its new 2030 climate targets – a 55% net greenhouse gas emissions reduction – and accelerate even further to reach 100% clean power by 2035.