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Renewables became Britain’s main power source in Q1 2020

Renewables generated more electricity than any other power source in the first three months of this year – the first time this landmark event has occurred, according to a report by energy market data analyst EnAppSys. 

This shows that renewables generated 35.4 TWh of power during the quarter – significantly higher than the 27 TWh produced in the first three months of 2019 – and amounting to 45% of total generation. 

The rise in renewables output in the quarter was due to very windy weather conditions, which contributed to a consistently high level of wind generation. Power output from wind farms exceeded 10 GW for 63% of the quarter and 5 GW for 85% of the period. 

At the same time, the end of the quarter saw a notable drop-off in demand as the country moved into lockdown due to the coronavirus. This meant that, not only did renewables exceed levels of gas-fired generation for a whole quarter for the first time, they also exceeded levels of total fossil fuel generation (gas and coal) by 36%. 

In the first quarter of the year, 45% of power generation came from renewable projects, 29% from gas-fired plants, 15% from nuclear plants, 7.3% from power imports and 3.7% from coal plants. 

Paul Verrill, Director of EnAppSys, said: ‘This represents a significant milestone for Britain’s power industry. Whilst the stay at home measures reduced demand in the last weeks of March, which increased the contribution of renewables, wind farms generated significantly more power than gas-fired plants, which historically have been the dominant fuel type for electricity generation in Great Britain for some years now.’ 

Verrill continued: ‘With weather likely to return to more typical patterns in future quarters, the 45% of electricity generation from renewable sources in the quarter is likely to be a temporary high. In the shorter term, as coronavirus measures continue, reduced electricity demand will lead to renewables providing a significant contribution to the GB energy mix.’ 

The other significant trend was a decrease in electricity generated by nuclear power plants. The nuclear sector generated its smallest overall volume of generation since Q3 2008, says EnAppSys, producing 12 TWh in the quarter as older reactors saw increased levels of downtime as they move towards the end of their operational lives. Verrill predicts that levels of nuclear generation will continue to decline as plants close. 

The first quarter of the year generally saw low prices and typical demand levels, except towards the end of the quarter when the impacts of the coronavirus lockdown started to take effect. Paul Verrill said: ‘The COVID-19 outbreak had only a slight impact on overall demand in Q1 as the stay at home requirements only came into force towards the end of March. We expect a greater impact in Q2 – especially if the lockdown continues until the end of June.’ 

Demand for daily electricity generation dropped by around 10% towards the end of Q1, as many offices and manufacturing plants shut down and fewer people travelled on public transport, but demand levels in the evening remained relatively stable as people still cooked their dinners and turned on the lights as normal, says EnAppSys. 

Meanwhile, analysis of electricity ‘transmission demand’ data for the last week of March by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) suggests that the increased domestic demand has been more than compensated for a reduction in commercial and industrial usage as businesses shrink their operations. 

Compared to the same week in 2019, weekday mornings have become similar to what we might normally expect at weekends, lacking the characteristic surge in demand as people prepare for and begin their working day, says UKERC. However, the evening peak is similar to normal, suggesting that the pattern of use in the evenings (domestic activities such as cooking, space heating, and hot water use) is relatively unchanged. 

UKERC cautions that transmission demand data excludes information on distributed, local generation schemes, so the figures should be treated with care. Nevertheless, the shift in electricity demand patterns means that the average weekday is now similar to what we might expect from weekend electricity use, add the researchers. 

Energy suppliers and distributors are therefore facing a new set of conditions, with lower than expected loads and shifting consumption patterns. UKERC suggests that the Electricity System Operator has already begun to reduce imports coming in from Europe via interconnectors, and curtail some output from wind farms. 

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