Britain could be emitting 50 million tonnes less CO2 if the electricity grid was regulated effectively

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The focus of debate around energy is always on the future. Should we build nuclear power plants? Should we frack? Should we ban coal? Should we ban onshore wind farms? These questions always seem to follow a simple yes/no formula. European energy policy, as Dennis MacShane observed, seems to simply be Just Say No!

This focus on the future results in an inability to see what can and should be done now.

One of the simplest ways to reduce emissions, and one available to us now, is never discussed. We need to use existing electricity generating capacity more effectively. The utilization of existing power plants should be maximized, while that of coal power plants should be minimized. Doing this could reduce Britain’s CO2 emissions by around 10% overnight.

To see this consider the recently published estimates from the Committee on Climate Change of the carbon intensity of Britain’s electricity grid in comparison with what could be achieved by minimizing emissions from the power plants feeding into Britain’s electricity grid.


The blue curve shows the actual intensity of the average unit of electricity. This is now lower than ever. But the red curve, which shows what can be achieved, is much lower. And the gap between the actual and the potential emissions intensity increased in recent years. The reason for this is that the utilization of gas power plants has slumped, whereas coal power plant output has increased. This is shown in officially published data for capacity factors, which show that the average capacity factors of gas power plants halved between 2010 and 2012.


Using the CCC’s intensity estimates and statistics for the historical emissions from electricity generation, I have estimated the potential aggregate CO2 savings Britain could have achieved over the period 2007-2014. The results are shown below.


The savings shown above are significant. Britain’s total GHG emissions were 568 million tonnes CO2eq in 2013, the most recent year official estimates are available. So in the last three years, Britain could have reduced its CO2 emissions by around 10% by minimizing the emissions intensity of existing electricity generating infrastructure.

This, of course, would come with a cost. But I suspect, with good reason, it would be a much cheaper way to reduce emissions than building wind farms or nuclear power plants.

There are two ways of doing this: carbon prices or regulations. Not that anyone is in a rush to take up this opportunity.

It is also, unfortunately, an increasingly historical opportunity, a lost opportunity. Britain could have saved around 350 million tonnes of CO2 over the period 2007-2014. But these savings are receding quickly.

Unlike green Germany, Britain is not building 11 or so gigawatts of new coal power plants this decade. While the Germans have built 11 GW of coal power plant infrastructure that will last half a century, Britain will essentially retire the equivalent amount over the same period. UK government projections show that the capacity of coal power plants is expected to halve, from 2014 to 2020, from 21 to 11 GW.

Within a decade coal power plants will more or less be extinct. Britain was the first country in the world to get the majority of its energy needs from coal, a feat that occurred some time between 1600 and 1650, and it now appears likely to be one of the first modernized economies to fully move away from coal.

But with the death of coal comes the death of the quick and easy cuts to CO2 emissions above. Strangely, policy makers and lobbyists don’t even seem to know these opportunities even exist….

6 thoughts on “Britain could be emitting 50 million tonnes less CO2 if the electricity grid was regulated effectively

    Ruth Dixon said:
    July 1, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Your post on 18 Jan 2015 showed that wind energy mostly displaced gas rather than coal. So is the fall in gas capacity factor a necessary consequence of the increasing amount of wind energy, or could coal power stations be used for that purpose if the power companies chose to do so?


      Robert Wilson said:
      July 1, 2015 at 10:30 am

      The fall in gas capacity factor is mostly because of the changes in the price of coal and gas. Gas plants were mostly the marginal plant in 2012-2014 so wind farms would have effectively reduced the capacity factors of gas power plants, but not to the same extent as price dynamics.


      donoughshanahan said:
      July 1, 2015 at 12:58 pm


      You can update the figures but my info from the state of play mid 2013.
      Coal exports from the US to the EU increased twofold in 2012 compared to 2011 according to POWER magazine. The main movers by total share of coal in electricity generation were UK (30 to 40%), Netherlands (22 to 28%), Germany (35 to 45%) with Spain and Italy seeing a 2% increase. I need to compare these with the lastest IEA data though the figures are in line with other references for the UK.

      They further estimate that the dark spreads of power plants (a measure of profitability) are around €37/MWh for coal in the UK but only €3.2 MWh for gas. Germany is 10 and -12 €/MWh respectively. They suggest that coal prices were decoupled from gas and oil prices in the EU in 2011.

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    Proteos said:
    July 1, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Your conclusion is a bit strange. The consensus in Britain, conscious or not, is to phase out coal progressively (or slowly, in less diplomatic terms). That points to the fact that some people at least are aware of the possibility you point to: that replacing coal by just about anything else reduces emissions.

    To tell the truth, that was the broad idea of the ETS market. It failed because every country in the EU chose to overstate its capacities and because of the financial crisis. Instead of reducing emissions as much as possible in the electricity sector, steel mills have been closed. That was not the original goal, but often politics require to place bets on the future. By definition, only some of these bets turn out to result in the expected outcome.


      donoughshanahan said:
      July 1, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      Did the EUETS have an impact? No doubt. However the plants that have closed tended to have underlying profitability issues. In other worlds the EUETS has affect plants but those that were well run and profitable just when m’eh.

      The recession and drop in the demand of the European steel markets drove all but ~2 steel makers into the red anyway on annual figures. The market is still 20-30% overcapacity especially for plants making structural.


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