Power sector’s carbon emissions at 60-year low as coal generation falls dramatically

During the last quarter of 2016 carbon emissions from Britain’s power sector fell to their lowest level for 60 years as more coal came off the system making way for renewables.

The new figures were revealed in the latest Electric Insights quarterly report produced by researchers at Imperial College London in collaboration with Drax.

2016 saw the most dramatic shift in the make-up of electricity generation since the 1984 miners’ strike. Coal generation fell 61% from the previous year as a mixture of low gas prices and the Carbon Price Floor continued to force it off the system.  Gas generation was up by more than 50%

The September-December period saw low carbon sources provide an average of 40% of Britain’s electricity needs over the quarter, peaking at a record 81% high over the Christmas period.

Wind output was low – over the quarter it was 7% down on the same period in 2015. This winter has seen fewer large storms, resulting in lower average wind speeds compared to previous years. Wind speeds in Q4 2016 were down 15% on 2015, the lowest since 2012.

Despite this, when Storm Barbara passed through just before Christmas, it enabled wind power to pass the 10GW barrier for the first time in Britain, beating the previous record of 9.4GW set in 2014.  However, wind farms also spent a whole day producing on average, less than 0.7GW – an output of just 5% of their installed capacity.

Andy Koss, Drax Power CEO said:

“These figures highlight a truly seismic shift in the balance of power.  Coal continues to disappear at a dramatic rate and we can see the impact of intermittent renewables which have been affected by dramatic weather events.

“Low gas prices and the Carbon Price Floor are forcing coal off the system and helping to ensure the UK is on track to meet its carbon targets for the power generation industry.

“It’s essential the UK’s energy system is supported by the right mix of power generation. Coal-to-biomass conversions and gas peaking plants are the best way to get coal off the system quickly and cost effectively whilst ensuring security of supply.”

Dr Iain Staffell, of Imperial College London, said:

“These figures clearly show that the Carbon Price Floor (CPF) has played an important part in relegating coal to a more ‘climate-friendly’ role providing infrequent peaking power at times of greatest need, allowing lower carbon gas to take over as the baseload generator.

“Over the last two years the CPF has added 0.5p/kWh to the cost of generation, or about 3% of a household electricity bill.  In return it has played a major part in reducing carbon emissions by a third, making it excellent value for money.”

The report also found that:

  • Britain became a net exporter to France for the first time in six years due to a crisis with French nuclear stations, but exports were limited due to the interconnector being damaged.
  • The loss of imports from France left the power market tight with National Grid issuing notices of thin margins. Power price volatility grew, with peak prices over £1,500/MWh

Electric Insights will be published once a quarter, and is supported by an interactive website – www.ElectricInsights.co.uk – which provides live data from 2009 until the present. The data sources and methodology used in Electric Insights are listed in full on the website.

Commissioned by Drax Group, owner and operator of the UK’s largest power station and Europe’s biggest biomass-fuelled power plant, the report will be delivered independently by Dr Iain Staffell from Imperial College London, facilitated by the College’s consultancy company – Imperial Consultants.

The full report can be read here



Jenny Davies
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Ali Lewis
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Lynda Stamford
Imperial Consultants
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Notes to Editors

  • Electric Insights Quarterly was commissioned by Drax and is delivered independently by a team of academics from Imperial College London, facilitated by the College’s consultancy company – Imperial Consultants. The report analyses raw data that are made publicly available by National Grid and Elexon, who run the electricity and balancing market respectively. Released four times a year, it will focus on supply and demand, prices, emissions, the performance of the various generation technologies and the network that connects them.
  • Along with Dr Iain Staffell, the team from Imperial included Professors Richard Green and Tim Green, experts in energy economics and electrical engineering, and Dr Rob Gross who contributed expertise in energy policy. The work to date has revealed scope for further research in this area, to inform both government and organisations within the energy industry.
  • The quarterly reports are backed by an interactive website electricinsights.co.uk which provides live data from 2009 until the present. It was designed by The Economist Group’s independent data design agency, Signal | Noise.
  • Generation from coal fell 61% in 2016 from the previous year whilst gas was up 51%, and low carbon reached its highest ever output. This was the largest annual swing in fuel shares since the miners’ strike of 1984 and the largest ever in percentage terms.
  • During Storm Barbara, wind generation peaked at 10.8GW throughout a 30-minute period on December 23. However, wind farms also spent a whole day producing on average, less than 0.7GW each half hourly period – an output of just 5% of the installed capacity.


About Drax

Drax Group plc plays a vital role in helping change the way energy is generated, supplied and used as the UK moves to a low carbon future. Drax operates the largest power station in the UK and supplies up to 8 percent of the country’s electricity needs. The energy firm converted from burning coal to become a predominantly biomass-fuelled electricity generator. Drax is the biggest single site renewable generator in the UK and the largest debarbonisation project in Europe.  Its 1,400-strong staff operate across three principal areas of activity – electricity generation, electricity sales to business customers and compressed wood pellet production.

The Group includes:

Drax Biomass, based in the US and manufacturers compressed wood pellets produced from sustainably managed working forests.

Haven Power, the Group’s retail arm, providing business electricity contracts that are simple, flexible and designed to customers specific requirements.

Billington Bioenergy, is one of the leading distributors of wood pellets for sustainable heating in the UK.

For more information visit www.drax.com

About Imperial Consultants

  • Imperial Consultants provide access to over 4,000 research-active expert academics and Imperial College London’s state of the art facilities to deliver innovative solutions to meet the business needs of industry, government and the third sector.
  • Founded in 1990, Imperial Consultants is the wholly owned consultancy company of Imperial College London. It was set up to help deliver the Colleges vision “A world where the direct application of Imperial’s expertise to solve major challenges for the benefit of society and industry is the global standard.”
  • One of the largest university owned consultancy companies in the UK, Imperial Consultants deliver around 600 projects for 500 clients each year. Clients range from SMEs to global corporations and include AstraZeneca, BAE Systems, BP, Caterpillar, DEFRA, EDF Energy, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and Unilever.
  • In the last 5 years, 40% of our projects have been delivered outside the UK, in over 70 countries.
  • For more information visit imperial-consultants.co.uk