The British grid is set to see periods where it is powered free of fossil fuels and with 100% zero-carbon electricity in just four years’ time, the operator has said.
A report from National Grid Electricity Systems Operator (ESO) said by 2025 it will have transformed operation of the electricity system so that when there is enough zero-carbon generation available, it will be able to make up all of the power supply.
At the moment the control room needs to draw on conventional power plants to provide stability to the grid, which means it has to keep sources such as gas on line even if 100% of demand could be met by zero-carbon power.
But National Grid ESO said it was working to find new ways to source “inertia” – energy in the spinning turbines of power plants which helps keep the grid stable – such as from hydropower stations, or repurposed gas turbines.
This means that by 2025, the British electricity system can run on 100% zero-carbon electricity, meeting an ambition set out by the operator in 2019 and helping put Britain on track to decarbonise the grid by 2035 to meet climate targets, it said.
Fintan Slye, National Grid ESO executive director, said: “We’re confident that by 2025 we will have periods of 100% zero-carbon electricity, with no fossil fuels used to generate power in Great Britain.
“The growth in renewable sources of power, with record levels of wind and solar, means there will be enough zero-carbon generation to meet demand.
“A key challenge is ensuring the electricity system is ready to accommodate that power.
“Our engineers are deploying innovative, world-first approaches to transform how the power system operates, such as removing the need to draw on fossil fuel-based generation for critical stabilising properties.”
Britain’s grid has transformed rapidly, with coal’s share of generation falling from 25% of power five years ago to just 1.6% in 2020, when there was a 68-day run without the polluting fossil fuel.
Wind and solar’s contribution to the grid have increased significantly, and in 2019, zero-carbon sources of electricity – wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower – outstripped fossil-fuelled generation for the first time ever.
On August 17 2019, zero-carbon power reached its highest share of the grid at 85%, and at 1pm on Easter Monday this year, the climate pollution from electricity generation fell to its lowest level ever, of 39g of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity consumed.
But on May 23 2020, although there was potential for near-100% zero-carbon electricity, the control room had to step in and pull back some wind and hydro and replace it with gas and biomass to provide enough inertia, so only around 83% of power was zero carbon.
Energy Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “Today’s report shows that the industry and the public’s hard work to drive up renewables is paying off and we are on the cusp of achieving periods of 100% zero-carbon electricity generation with no fossil fuels used.
“There’s still some way to go, which is why we are powering forward with our ambitious commitments to increase renewable power across the UK and invest in new, green technologies so that we build back greener from the pandemic and tackle climate change.”