How the UK industry got ahead on decarbonisation: the role of luck, surprise and late mover advantage

The UK is celebrating bringing forward the phase out of coal and the plunging level of carbon emissions from the power sector. But as I have covered the sector over the years, I have noticed that it’s not always the positive policy choices we made that have got us this far. Sometimes we took a mis-step, benefitted from choices that looked dubious at the time or were fortunate in the unintended consequences of policies with different aims.

We destroyed most of the domestic coal mining industry in 1985. This was a disaster for the mining communities involved, who took decades to recover (although a few coal-mining areas remained until recent years). But it meant that at the time coal has been coming off the bars, in the last few years, we were importing coal. Mostly, we had decoupled, and we didn’t have to combine closing coal plant with closing coal mines in communities for whom they were the major industry – as is the case in Germany or Poland.

We missed the boat on newer, more efficient, coal-fired plants. The UK has not built a coal-fired power station since the 1980s, as recorded in the New Power Database of UK power assets. While other countries invested in newer plant  that were much more efficient such as ‘supercritical’ plant, the UK’s generators decided to sweat the assets, nursing old, less efficient plant (albeit with some upgrades such as a major turbine replacement at Drax). Come the new century, they were paid off, elderly and ready to retire.

We got hit by acid rain regs. Halting one global ecological disaster required us to backfit technology to absorb sulphur emissions. That put up the price of running coal plant and caused some to be shut down entirely, thus helping to address another global ecological disaster. And incidentally, we didn’t read the small print, allowing emission limits to be defined per chimney in a way that immediately multiplied the challenge for any site where several power units had flues that shared a chimney.

We lost the lead on the first wave of wind turbines. Denmark and Germany underwrote the rollout and use of early wind turbines, which were smaller in size and more expensive to run. As a result, the UK could begin its own subsidy programme at the point where large manufacturers were beginning to scale up, standardise and roll out turbines.

We were in ignorance about our ‘behind the meter’ capacity. The Capacity Market has many failings, but it revealed that the UK already had a huge amount of distributed generation. It was on industrial and commercial sites, and it was being started up regularly, but ‘on test’. But it could as easily be run at a time when it could simultaneously ‘peak lop’. True, many of that revealed plant came in the form of diesel generators, but …

We got hit by air pollution regs and now NOx emissions are penalised, so over time those on-site diesels will be replaced by cleaner types of power generation or batteries. That replacement, in many cases, will be done with an eye to installing assets that are ready and able to respond to grid needs from the start.

We didn’t expect the consumer surge, so the sudden popularity of PV installations took local network operators by surprise and came well in advance of any attempt to beef up or reconfigure the grid to cope with it. That is one reason why the DNOs have developed new contract types, such as those with ‘non-firm’ export, and are working on market alternatives to reinforcing the network.

Are there other areas where we are playing catch-up? I see some:

We don’t have much CHP and district heating in comparison to, say, Denmark, where two-thirds of homes are on district heating networks. But many of Denmark’s schemes are fossil-fuel based and have to be converted. Starting a district heat rollout now, we have other options such as heat pumps or waste to energy.

We had the wrong view on resilience The UK’s power industry is fantastically good at keeping the lights on. I recall in the 1990s writing about other regions, where the industry was not so ‘mature’, and where backup plant were both highly visible and frequently in use, helping customers operate through blackouts and interruptions. I think it’s fair to say UK engineers at the time regarded that as a failure of the power supply sector. There was little sense that you could work in partnership with customers, building in all-round resilience and sharing assets, instead of asking them to pay for extra plant to meet whatever need customers had – and a ‘gold plated’ network as well. Now that seems far from obvious. It may be that we can learn a lot about resilience from countries who are managing a distributed system from necessity.

The dash for offshore wind will cannibalise prices on windy days but my timelines show that electric vehicle owners with variable tariffs are making the most of those periods of low or negative prices. It’s early days, but I’m hoping for a virtuous circle of growing EV demand to take advantage of low price periods and growing wind capacity to feed the overall transport need.

Of course sometimes we have had policies successful in their own right. But it’s good to see we can make the most of others.