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Going off grid: The companies generating their own energy

The residents of Cupertino, California are getting used to their new space-aged neighbour. In this Silicon Valley city, a sleek, doughnut-shaped flying saucer sits on a hillside, overlooking the population. But this is no extra-terrestrial. This is the new home of Cupertino’s most-famous inhabitant: Apple.

The so-called Apple Campus 2 ‘spaceship’ has caused a stir since it opened this year. With its abundance of trees, 100,000 square-foot wellness centre, revolutionary chairs and specially designed pizza boxes, it aims to be, as the late Steve Jobs declared it, “the best office building in the world.”

But there’s also something interesting going on outside the building where women and men think up the next iPhone. Around the 175-acre campus sits 805,000 square-feet of solar arrays. The 17 megawatts (MW) of solar panels on the spaceship’s roof and 4 MW of fuel cell storage will provide 75% of the building’s daytime electricity, with the rest coming from a nearby 130 MW solar farm.

The aim is to not only power operations with renewable energy, but to do so with self-generated renewable energy – and Apple aren’t alone in this endeavour.

Driven by a need to operate more cleanly and enabled by increasingly accessible renewable energy technologies, many companies are now pursuing their own energy independence. Could we soon see the first entirely off-grid multinational?

Going off grid

Think of IKEA and you might think of long afternoons wrestling woodwork and Allen keys – what you don’t think of is wind turbines. However, the Swedish retailer, which boasts 355 locations across 29 countries, recently saw the number of wind turbines it owns exceed the number of stores. By 2020 it aims to generate more renewable energy than it uses worldwide – something it’s already achieved in the Nordics and Canada.

IKEA isn’t the only retailer exploring innovative energy models. US shopping and leisure mall giants Target and Walmart, which count almost 7,000 locations between them, are also looking to self-generate renewable energy at mass scale.

Making use of the space available at their massive stores, the retailers are looking to rooftop solar systems to power their efforts to reach 100% renewable energy. At the end of last year Target was the US’ leading corporate solar installer with 147.5 MW of capacity, followed by Walmart with 145 MW.

Unsurprisingly, the tech industry is making a big push towards self-supply or sourcing power from 100% renewable generators. This is largely down to just how much electricity they use, particularly when it comes to things like data centres.

Estimated by some to become the largest users of electrical power on the planet by the 2020s, datacentres house hundreds of rows of servers that remotely store and process internet and mobile data from around the world. They are the physical footprint of our digital, cloud computing age and already they’re estimated to use roughly 3% of the global electricity supply.

One big user of datacentres — crypto currency Blockchain — is projected by 2020 to use about the same amount of power each year as Denmark.

Microsoft has tackled its datacentre demand by both developing in-house generation capabilities and by partnering with local utilities suppliers to source renewable energy for their centres. Not only does this make operations cleaner, but the independence can also increase the reliability of their power supplies, which are often backed up by batteries.

There are other obvious benefits for companies going energy-independent – one being the PR boost. But there is also a significant bottom line benefit, even for partly self-generating organisations. In the first half of 2017 Thames Water cut £12 million from its annual energy bills by producing 23% of its own electricity.

Biomass domes

While solar and wind made up part of this, the water management company generated much of the 146 GWh it produced through biogas made from its own sewage management facilities. The power it didn’t generate itself was sourced from Haven Power in the form of renewable biomass electricity.

What it means for the grid

The cynical view may be one that says energy independence is a further step towards entirely independent and unregulated multinationals, but there are signs it can benefit the wider population too.

Some self-generation operations can feed electricity back into the grid, serving as a backup resource at times of high demand. This idea of ‘prosuming’ (both producing and consuming electricity) is growing outside of big businesses in the residential space. With the rise of electric vehicles and their potential to store and feed power back to the grid, it is one likely to grow even further, and big companies are taking note.

Microsoft points to its Cheyenne, Wyoming-based data centre as an example of this. Local utility Black Hills Energy (which it has partnered with to source renewable power) has the ability to draw from the datacentre’s normally dormant backup generators in times of need.

In the UK, this is happening on a smaller scale. Hamerton Zoo Park, in Cambridgeshire, generates its own onsite wind, solar and biomass power, making it the most ‘environmentally friendly zoo in Europe’. Excess power not used on site is then sold back to the grid through Opus Energy, generating extra revenue for the zoo and contributing to overall grid supply.

Even with growing numbers of prosuming and energy-independent companies, however, there will still be a need for grid-stabilising services provided by large scale generators. Companies perform well when they focus on their core business. Partnering with energy suppliers to help them manage their electricity – including their self-generated power – can make sense. But what increasing levels of distributed renewable energy generation offers is the potential to reduce usage of fossil fuels at a countrywide level.

Coordinating the give and take of this energy across the entire system will take significant effort, but smart technologies and improving storage will help grids and energy-independent companies work together to make the whole system cleaner.

Can electricity power heavy-duty vehicles?

On a blacked-out stage, a blast of white light appears. Smoke floods out, music blares and an excited crowd surges forward, smartphones held aloft. It’s a moment of rapture – but this is not a theatrical or musical performance. This is the launch of an electric car.

Specifically, the launch of Tesla’s new electric roadster – which claims to be the fastest production car ever made. And while the sportscar may have been the undoubted star of the event, it wasn’t the only one unveiled. Tesla also launched an electric-powered articulated lorry – the Semi.

With governments around the world setting ambitious plans to ban the sale of petrol-and-diesel-only cars, the introduction of electric-powered utility vehicles – like Tesla’s truck – in a range of industries will be essential to a truly decarbonised transport system.

Disrupting trucking

Tesla’s heavy goods vehicle (HGV) highlights the growing capabilities of electric vehicles (EVs) to deliver more than just short, urban journeys. It claims its Semi will be able to travel 500 miles on a single charge (enough to get you from London to Edinburgh comfortably) and tow 40 tonnes of cargo.

Tesla isn’t the only player with electric big rig concepts – Los Angeles-based Thor Trucks, Daimler and Volkswagen have unveiled their own – but its ambitious 2019 production target makes it a more immediate possibility than any other in the space.

Despite media coverage claiming the Semi’s mega-charging capability breaks the laws of physics, big business is taking a sunny view of Elon Musk’s latest innovation. Walmart, which has been taking strides to reduce its emissions, has already pre-ordered 15 of the Semis. Delivery firm UPS has used small electric trucks in major cities for some years already – it has placed the largest order so far, for 125.

Electrifying emergency response

In the world of emergency services, quick response is vital. EVs, then, which have fast acceleration and are quick off the mark, are ideal candidates to deliver – especially as battery technology becomes more reliable and durable.

Health services in Nottingham have already been trialling electric-powered fast response vehicles, while in Japan, Nissan has unveiled an all-electric ambulance that carries a lithium-ion auxiliary battery to power medical equipment on board.

This on-board power supply is a further advantage of EVs, and one not just restricted to emergency services. Electric pickup truck maker Havelaar, for example, offers power outlets on its Bison vehicle for electric tools.

The future of battery farming

Out in the countryside, EVs are making waves in farming. John Deere has unveiled plans for fully electric tractors, claiming they require less maintenance and have a longer lifecycle than combustion engines.

With more than a third of UK farms generating their own power from solar, wind and even anaerobic digestion using farm by-products, there’s potential for farmers to charge tractors renewably and cut their fuel and charging costs.

More than just helping cut emissions and costs, there can also be performance benefits. Given their acceleration abilities, electric tractors are well suited to heavy pulling without revving up engines and churning up ground.

Joining HGVs and tractors in their ability to apply almost instant torque to heavy industrial jobs are e-Dumper trucks. The Komatsu quarry truck weighs in at almost 45 tonnes and claims to be the biggest EV in the world.

The economic advantage of electrification

Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are the main driving force behind many anti-fossil fuel regulations. However, research suggests decarbonising transport systems also have economic advantages for businesses.

A report by financial services firm Hitachi Capital found that switching vans and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to electric or other alternative fuels could save British businesses as much as £14 billion a year.

It claims EVs run at 13p cheaper per mile than diesel-fuelled vans, while HGVs are reported to be 38p cheaper. That adds up to total savings of £13.7 billion a year if all Britain’s commercial vehicles were switched.

The move to a fully electrified transport system is already underway. The number of registered electric cars increased by 280% in the UK over the past four years, according to the Hitachi report. The Chinese city of Shenzhen’s entire fleet of 16,359 buses has gone electric – a transition that began in 2009 and has been assisted by an 80% drop in the cost of a lithium-ion battery pack. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China’s need for electric bus batteries is almost on a par to that of all global EV battery demand. China could be said to be driving the market.

EVs are undoubtedly cleaner when it comes to road-side pollution. However, the exponential increase in EVs will only benefit the fight against man made climate change if countries’ entire energy systems continue to decarbonise. Emissions-free vehicles will need to be powered predominantly by low carbon electricity for a more electric future to be a sustainable one.

How did we use electricity in the 70s?

Great Britain’s energy mix is arguably in the best place it’s been in modern times. During the second quarter of 2017, 56% of our power came from lower-carbon energy sources. This includes renewable, nuclear and much of the power imported from France. By 2035, it’s projected that the amount of electricity generated by ‘major power producers’ from renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass could more than double from just over 80 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2016 to almost 180 TWh.

There is still a way to go, but the progress we’ve made is remarkable. Great Britain is now ranked seventh among large economies for electricity decarbonisation. It’s even more impressive when you consider where we’ve come from. Just five years ago, 38% of the UK’s electricity was generated from coal. Between April and August 2017, that share slipped to just 1.9%, and in April 2017 Britain went a full 24 hours without using any coal to generate its electricity – the first time this has happened since the Industrial Revolution.

If you look even further back, however, the difference is even more impressive.

Electricity in the 70s

Welcome to 1970s Britain. Striking workers in the power industry have prompted Edward Heath’s Conservative government to put in place the three-day week, limiting commercial use of electricity and putting curfews on television broadcasting. Since then a lot has changed, and this has had a marked effect on how we use electricity.

For one, the UK’s population has grown by nearly 10 million. More than that, the average number of electronic appliances per household has risen from 21 to 50.

In 1970 the average household had 16 lighting appliances, one cold (e.g. fridges and freezers), one wet (e.g. washing machines and dishwashers), one cooking appliance and two consumer electronic devices (e.g. a TV and a power supply unit). In comparison, the average today is 27 lighting, two cold, two wet, 13 consumer electronics, three cooking devices and an additional three home computing devices. The UK household today is far more reliant on electricity and electrical devices – unsurprisingly, this means how much electricity we use has changed.

Total household electricity consumption in 1970 was 2,995 ktoe (thousand tonnes of oil equivalent). In 2015, Britain used nearly double – 6,869 ktoe. And while this is a steep rise, our electricity use is currently on a downward trajectory.

Since peaking in 2007 at more than 8,000 ktoe, domestic electricity use has shrunk thanks to more efficient appliances. For example, an LED light bulb can use as much as 80% less electricity than a traditional incandescent one – and can last 25 times longer.

Our overall energy use (i.e. the sources beyond electricity that we use to fuel things like heating and transport) has also decreased since 1970. Households are using 12% less, while the relative decline of heavy industry and manufacturing in the UK means industry now uses 60% less energy than it did in 1970.

These gains are slightly offset by our growing love of mobility. In 1970, there were around 10 million cars on UK roads. Now there are around 26 million and we also take a lot more flights, which means the transport sector today uses roughly 50% more energy than in 1970.

Cleaning things up

Electricity consumption has changed since the 1970s. That’s no surprise, but what’s more important is the electricity we use is cleaner than it’s ever been. In 1970, we used 57 million tonnes of coal in power generation every year. By 2012 we were using just three million tonnes, and during the last four years coal output has fallen 82%. Instead, our electricity is increasingly coming from natural gas plus renewable and low carbon sources, a trend set to continue.

With the maturation of renewables, the increasing prevalence of smarter technologies and smarter, more efficient electricity grids, our energy system is set to remain in a state of positive change. A lot of progress has been made over the last 40 years – and it’s likely to continue over the next 40.

This is the first in a series on electricity demand through the ages, the second story of which looks at 2018

7 principles of a sustainable forest biomass policy

Biomass is playing an important role in moving the UK away from coal. At Drax Power Station, in the form of compressed wood pellets, biomass is already supplying roughly 17% of Great Britain’s renewable power.

But more than just being a low carbon replacement for fossil fuel generation, it is also crucial in maintaining the stability of the power network. Among renewable sources of power, biomass is unique in being able to provide the same range of ancillary services that can be provided by coal power stations – such as frequency control and inertia. This inherrent flexibility is vital in maintaining stability on Britain’s high voltage transmission system. Wood pellets can also reliably generate power, helping to fill in the gaps left by intermittent renewables when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine and avoiding reliance on diesel, coal and gas.

However, for the UK and the wider global environment to reap the maximum benefits from biomass, it must be produced sustainably. More than this, its supply chain must be low in emissions so that clear savings can be made versus power generation with fossil fuels.

To ensure this, the use of biomass is regulated in the UK under EU Timber Regulations and the Renewables Obligation (RO). But further guidelines are set to be introduced as part of the European Parliament’s update to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which will specify criteria for all biomass.

There is a clear need for this, but for these to be truly successful they need to be based on a set of robust key principles. A new report by Drax outlines seven of these which can ensure sustainable biomass usage in the future.

1. Forest biomass for bioenergy should be sourced from sustainable forests

The sustainability of the forests from which biomass is sourced is key to ensuring its usage has a positive impact on the environmental, social and economic health of that supply region.

For example, a properly managed forest can boost carbon stock as the younger, faster growing trees that are replanted after felling absorb more CO2 than older, over-mature trees.  Thinning operations also increase the growth of the biggest and best trees, ensuring more carbon is stored in longer term solid wood products.

Generators should be able to demonstrate they are avoiding biomass sourced from higher-risk areas where extracting biomass could cause long-term carbon stock decreases in soils or ecosystems, as well as other factors such as biodiversity loss, soil erosion or depletion of water sources.

2. Bioenergy from forest biomass should not be produced from high-risk feedstocks

Feedstocks, the raw materials turned into biomass pellets, must come from sustainable sources and avoid protected and sensitive sites that could be considered a risk.

In 2016 around 40% of all feedstock supplied to Drax originated as a sawmill residue. Processes such as thinning also serve as a source of biomass feedstock, while also benefitting the overall health and quality of the forest. Thinning a semi mature stand of trees allows the forest owner to maximise the production of higher value saw-timber trees, storing more carbon and generating more stable revenue streams. Having a variety of wood products markets from saw logs through to biomass incentivises land owners to maintain healthy forests and reduces the risk of conversion of forest to agriculture or urban development.

3. Carbon savings and emissions should be properly accounted

To understand the effectiveness of biomass sustainability policy, carbon savings need to be measured.

Factors such as fossil fuel substitution and the emissions associated with harvesting, processing and transporting biomass are relatively straightforward to measure.

4. Bioenergy should be limited to what can be sustainably supplied

Unlike coal or oil, which will eventually run out, more trees can be planted, grown and harvested.

That said, there is a natural limit to the amount of biomass available on the planet, and so it should not be considered an infinite resource. This is why it’s crucial biomass is sourced from sustainable forests managed following set guidelines. In short, to ensure biomass truly is sustainable, it is essential that working forests are actively managed and maintain or increase productivity.

5. Support should be given to all technologies that achieve significant carbon savings

One of the major advantages of biomass over other renewable sources is its potential to help the UK rapidly adapt to meet the EU target of achieving 27% of final energy consumption from renewables.

The fastest way for biomass to make an impact to the UK’s carbon emissions is through converting coal power stations to biomass, as is the case at Drax Power Station.

This repurposing of existing facilities not only offers rapid adoption of renewable energy, but also the ability to provide vital ancillary services other renewable sources can’t.

Quickly deploying biomass solutions in this manner will serve to help it become an established part of the energy system as it continues to decarbonise.

6. The efficient use of raw materials is supported by encouraging buoyant forest biomass markets

Globally, there are substantial amounts of forest residue and forestry industry by-products that currently go unused.

Biomass should be sourced from regions where the largest surpluses exist and the forest carbon balance can be maintained. To enable this to function effectively on a global scale, trade restrictions should be avoided.

Pelletisation offers one of the most efficient ways for this raw material to be used by making it safe, cost-efficient and low-carbon to transport around the world.

These principals are tried and tested by Drax and known to protect forests and ecosystems, as well as optimise supply chains to ensure carbon emissions are kept to a minimum. Ultimately, Drax’s experience in sustainably using biomass serve as a guide for other producers and governments to quickly decarbonise energy systems.

7. The sustainability of forest biomass should be independently verified

One of the best ways to guarantee biomass is sourced sustainably is by introducing third-parties and official guidelines that generators and suppliers can work with.

In Europe, forest level management certification schemes can act as an effective indicator that forests are managed in accordance with the guidelines laid out by Forest Europe. Outside of Europe, where Drax sources most of its biomass, independent, third part auditors can ensure the UK’s stringent criteria are being met on the ground.

Read the full report: The 7 Principles of a Sustainable Forest Biomass Policy – Proven to Work

Back to nature

Take a walk up the banks of Barlow Mound this weekend and you could encounter sheep, roe deer, rabbits, falcons, bats and impressive views of North Yorkshire as well as a host of other fauna and flora. What you might not realise is the hill you’re standing on is entirely man-made and is largely made of ash.

That this might be a surprise to visitors is testament to the success of Barlow Mound, a project which was conceived in the 1970s as a disposal solution for the left-over power station product of ash, that has gone on to provide a thriving natural habitat to be enjoyed by wildlife and local residents alike.

Whilst Barlow Mound has a fascinating recent history, it is by no means a thing of the past. Today it’s a unique environment that is continually managed by a passionate team and offers plenty for visitors to see.

The mound under construction

A mound out of a molehill

When Drax Power Station was first opened in 1974 it was the largest coal power station in Western Europe burning around 250,000 tonnes of coal a week. Burning that much coal resulted in a lot of pulverised fuel ash left over as a by-product. Today much of the ash by-product from burning biomass and coal at Drax is sold to the building industry, but before the market for this product emerged, building a mound was the thing to do.

“The Aberfan disaster happened at around the same time as construction began at Drax, so there was a lot of persuading people that it was the right thing to do,” FGD and By-Products Section Head Andrew Christian says. “So it’s an engineered mound to make sure it won’t ever move. There was a lot of engineering that went into it, and the Central Electricity Generating Board (which then ran Drax) were brilliant at engineering.”

As part of the planning permission for building the mound, Drax proposed to turn the mound into a natural habitat supporting trees and a variety of wildlife. Today the mound is continually managed by a passionate Drax team as well as contracted ecologists and tenant farmers to ensure the nature reserve is an environment that supports all those who call it home.

“All of a sudden I’ve got a farmer explaining sheep digestion systems to me and that’s obviously not my area of expertise!” Christian says. “For the ecologists it’s a bit of a dream because not that many people go on there, so there’s not many landmasses like that that have got wildflower meadows, grassland, trees, wet areas, where there aren’t human inhabitants, so things are left to naturally evolve.”

The team of ecologists provide regular advice to Drax, and that advice leads to installations such as the reptile hibernacula which provides a suitable home for grass snakes – “dig a hole, fill it full of rocks and logs, put the grass on top, they love it,” Christian says. Another reason the ecological advice is important is due to the self-contained nature of the habitat – a fence around the entire site means species numbers must be closely monitored.

What you can see at the nature reserve

There are four marked walks for visitors to enjoy that wind through the changing landscapes of the nature reserve, from Fenton’s Pond and its wildlife to the mound-top viewing platform offering panoramic views of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Humberside. Drax have recently improved facilities for walkers by installing new signage, a bird hide, and better identification of the walks. The nature reserve is also home to the Yorkshire Wildlife and Swan Rescue Centre which rehabilitates up to 2,000 birds a year.

Another new addition is the new outdoor classroom next to the Skylark Centre. The classroom is now regularly used by Outdoor Ted, an outdoor learning programme for primary schools in Yorkshire designed and delivered by education specialist Stacey Howard. Children can enjoy the nature reserve and can take part in activities such as archery, shelter building and making campfires.

Photo: Steve Parker

Photo: Steve Parker

And in December 2017 the Skylark Centre is hosting two special Christmas Wonderland events for the public. This year’s events will see the Centre transformed into an elves workshop featuring Christmas traditions from around the world, face painting, Christmas quizzes, arts & crafts and marshmellow roasting around the outdoor fire pit. You can see more information on the Christmas Wonderland events here – everyone is welcome and entry is free with charitable donations welcomed.

A view to the future

It’s part of the original planning condition of Barlow Mound to maintain the habitat and natural resource. But the maintenance of the nature reserve is also about social responsibility. As Christian says, “If you live in Barlow village, when you come in and walk around it, it’s a fantastic place and it’s free.”

The Skylark Centre and Nature Reserve are temporarily closed. The closure is to reduce the risk to business-critical areas of our operation. We are planning to re-open in 2021, but we cannot guarantee this at the present time. Please check our website for the latest information.

What will happen to the carbon price after 2020?

Great Britain’s electricity is cleaner than ever. As wind, solar, biomass and hydro continue to make up more and more of our energy mix, the power system edges ever closer to being entirely decarbonised. The GB power system has leapt up the big economies’ low carbon league table from 20th in 2012 to seventh in 2016.

But this shift to lower-carbon power isn’t owed only to growing renewable electricity capacity. A fall in gas prices has helped and importantly, government policy has ensured coal power generation has become increasingly uneconomical vs electricity produced with gas (gas and coal compete for contracts to supply power to the National Grid).

Introduced in 2013, Great Britain’s Carbon Price Floor sets the minimum price on carbon emissions. A stricter policy than the EU’s volatile EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) which puts a much lower price on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the Carbon Price Support as the British policy is also known tops up the EU ETS. Together, they have had a significant impact. According to Aurora Energy Research, the Carbon Price Floor is a major factor in coal generation emissions falling.

In Great Britain, the Carbon Price Floor (CPF) is currently capped at £18 per tonne of CO2 and the EU ETS sits at around £5 t/CO2 – meaning power generators and heavy industry pay around £23 t/CO2 altogether. When initially formulated by the coalition government in 2010, it was intended the CPF would reach £30 per tonne by 2020 and £70 per tonne by 2030. However, the EU ETS has since fallen therefore the UK government chose to cap the carbon price support at £18 per tonne until 2020.

Now, as we reach the end of the decade, questions remain as to what will happen to this crucial mechanism post-2020. Will the government price coal off the system once and for all or will the fossil fuel make an unlikely comeback?

Four visions of carbon pricing’s future

In its research, Aurora has identified four potential future scenarios for the UK’s carbon pricing strategy.

Status Quo: If the UK chooses to continue supporting the phase-out of coal and promotes low-carbon investment, the Carbon Price Floor will steadily increase post-2020, reaching an estimated £52 per tonne by 2040. In this scenario the UK’s carbon pricing structure remains about £18 per tonne higher than the EU ETS which is currently around £5 per tonne.

Catch-up: In the post-Brexit landscape (whatever it may look like) the UK may choose to seek parity with the EU over decarbonisation. In this scenario, the total UK carbon price remains flat with EU ETS, which rises until convergence. In this scenario the UK and EU’s price per tonne of carbon reaches £35 by 2040.

Low Priced Carbon: In the event that the UK government removes the carbon price from 2021 and the EU ETS never recovers beyond its 2017 level, the short-term effects could be a drop in the price of coal power and cheaper energy bills. CO2 emissions increase in the UK as demand for power rises in the late 2020s and beyond (as recently witnessed in the Netherlands where coal generation has increased, in part, due to a low EU ETS). The expected price per tonne of carbon could be as low as £6 by 2040 and investment in lower carbon and renewable forms of power generation stalls.

High Priced Carbon: In order to meet the UK’s fourth and fifth carbon budgets set by the Committee on Climate Change, this scenario sees the electricity system decarbonise more quickly, with coal removed as an energy source. The carbon price rises dramatically over the next two decades to hit £153 per tonne by 2040.

Stopping the coal comeback

Of these four scenarios, the steadily increasing prices of the Status Quo scenario could see the UK meet its power sector target within the fourth carbon budget of 100 g CO2-eq/kWh  – achieving a 51% reduction from 1990 emission levels by 2030. But Aurora found that keeping things as they are could see a radical swing the other way, some years earlier in its scenario: coal could make a comeback in the early 2020s.

In July this year, coal accounted for just 2% of electricity generation in Great Britain and in 2016 as a whole it accounted for 9%, producing the lowest amount of electricity since the start of World War II. Without solid growth of the Carbon Price Floor it could become a much more competitive fuel. This potential is further increased by a predicted rise in natural gas prices post-2020, when the current surplus of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is set to end.

If the government chooses not to set tough prices on carbon emissions, Aurora predicts that on average coal will account for 9% of electricity generation between 2021 and 2025 – a change in the declining coal power trend seen in recent years. A Low Carbon Price future would see coal grow to almost 12% of the total electricity generation mix during the same period.

By contrast, in the High Carbon Price scenario, coal is almost completely driven out of the energy system, accounting for an estimated 2% of electricity generation between 2021 and 2025.

Signalling to the future

What is crucial for British power generators at this stage is clarity beyond 2020, when the £18 per tonne cap ends. This can allow the industry to react to future carbon pricing and prepare for whatever future scenario the government is most likely to adopt.

If the government chooses to continue decarbonising the energy system in a significant way – as it should do – coal facilities can be converted to renewable or lower-carbon units, such as biomass or gas. New interconnectors, renewable sources, storage facilities and demand-side response will also need to be installed at a greater capacity to meet the energy system’s demands.

As the amount of low carbon generation continues to grow, it will increasingly be the marginal generator. This means that power stations such as Drax’s biomass units, which run with an 87% lower carbon footprint compared to coal across their entire supply chain, could be used to meet the last megawatt hour (MWh) of demand – and this would see the carbon price having a diminishing impact on the wholesale price of power.

As has already been shown, the Carbon Price Floor is one of the most effective ways to reduce Great Britain’s electricity emissions. But to continue this impressive progress, the government needs to use it appropriately to set a path towards a decarbonised future.

In October, Drax joined British energy company SSE, climate NGO Sandbag and others to write to Chancellor Philip Hammond, calling on him to back the Carbon Price Floor beyond 2020 and in doing so, provide certainty for businesses investing in lower carbon and renewable capacity. Read the letter here

What happened to Great Britain’s electricity over summer 2017

What a difference four years can make. Back in 2012 the carbon intensity of Great Britain’s electricity production was almost 600g per kWh (kilowatt hour). Jump forward to 2016 and this has halved to make Britain one of the least carbon-intense power systems in the world.

This good news comes from Electric Insights, a quarterly research paper on Britain’s power system, commissioned by Drax and written by Imperial College London academics. The latest report’s key finding is just how much Britain’s energy system has decarbonised compared to other nations.

Here is what the data from Q3 2017 tell us about Great Britain’s energy system today and how it will continue to change into the future.

 Climbing the low carbon league tables

Comparing the electricity mix and carbon intensity of nations producing more than 100 TWh (terawatt hours) a year, the report has established a ‘league table’ that tracks the progress (or regress) of countries’ efforts. It shows Britain’s energy system has decarbonised at a greater pace than any other nation.

In 2012 Britain was ranked 20th, sitting mid-table alongside Italy and Saudi Arabia. But in the four years following, Britain rocketed up to become the seventh least-carbon intense energy system in the world in 2016.

The 47% drop in carbon intensity is the biggest change of any of the countries analysed, and puts Britain just behind Norway and Sweden, which have the resources to support substantial hydropower generation, as well as nuclear-dependent France.

The most any other country moved was eight places – in the opposite direction to Britain. This was the Netherlands where new coal power stations were built at a time when use of coal across England, Scotland and Wales combined reduced by around 80%. The additional coal capacity and power generated from that fuel in the Netherlands led to a dramatic increase in carbon emissions.

A major force in helping drive Britain’s rapid move away from coal is the Carbon Price Floor. This currently sits at £18 per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted, on top of just £5 per tonne in the rest of Europe.

Read the full analysis at The low carbon electricity league table and view full chart here.

Importing problems?

Imports are making up an increasing amount of the UK’s electricity mix, and in July and August they reached an all-time high of 9%. The majority (60%) of these imports in Q3 2017 came from France, while 30% was from the Netherlands and 10% from Ireland.

However, while importing electricity from overseas has become crucial in helping meeting demand and maintaining a flexible grid, questions remain around the practice’s carbon intensity.

France generates much of its electricity from low-carbon nuclear sources, however, Irish and Dutch exports rely heavily on fossil fuels. As a result, the electricity Britain imported had a 30% higher carbon intensity than that generated domestically – 314 vs 245 g/kWh over the last 12 months.

Over the next five years 7 GW (gigawatts) of new interconnectors are planned for construction (including with France, Norway and Denmark), which could increase electricity imports to provide as much as 10-24% of the country’s electricity. As these continue to play a bigger role in our electricity mix, it is important we ensure it comes from lower-carbon sources where possible and supports the continuing decarbonisation of electricity rather than ‘exporting emissions’.

Read two articles on the topic of interconnectors in Electric Insights:

Coal firmly relegated to the bench

The nose-dive of coal generation in Britain since 2012 highlights just how out-of-favour the carbon-intensive fossil fuel has become in the energy system. Now it occupies a role solely as a backup to low-carbon and renewable sources.

Over the summer months coal generation stayed at a historic low of 1.9% of total electricity generation. Between April and August Britain’s 14 GW of installed coal stations only produced 0.6 GW in an average hour. This follows a year of milestones in the decline of coal, most notably in April, when Britain saw its first day without burning any coal since 1882.

But this is not to say it has disappeared completely. As temperatures dropped in late summer, coal was called upon to meet sudden demand. On September 19th 40% of the coal fleet was called upon to produce 5.7 GW on average across that day, showing that even as coal capacity plummets – dropping from 28 GW in 2012 to 14 GW in 2016 – it still plays a necessary role in helping meet peaks in demand.

What’s clear, however, is that this role is only growing smaller and smaller as our power system continues to decarbonise and flexible energy technologies replace it.

Read the full article here: Coal output bottoms out

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Commissioned by Drax, Electric Insights is produced independently by a team of academics from Imperial College London, led by Dr Iain Staffell and facilitated by the College’s consultancy company – Imperial Consultants.

What is an ‘advantaged’ fuel, and why use them?

Drax Power Station produces 17% of the UK’s renewable electricity, but it has a long history as a coal-fired generator. And while today around 70% of Drax’s output is from renewable biomass, there are still instances when coal is used – for example, at times of high demand, such as in the winter months.

Beyond just meeting demand for power, maintaining some operational coal capacity until it can be replaced with more biomass or gas, also allows Drax to offer flexibility and grid stability through ancillary services such as inertia, reactive power and frequency management.

Ensuring these remaining coal units run as efficiently as possible is key to Drax being able to economically provide support services to the grid. And for this, alongside more conventional coals it uses something termed as advantaged fuels.

What are advantaged fuels?

Advantaged fuels are coals outside of Drax’s conventional specification that are slightly more affordable than standard coals. Blending advantaged fuels with standard coal before burning allows generators to remain economical while meeting demand.

At Drax, these include off-specification coal and mine remnants such as pond fines, which are produced from former deep mine sites . These are offered at lower prices than standard fuels because they often have a lower calorific value, meaning they produce less energy when burned, or are difficult to work with and transport.

The benefit, however, is that power stations are able to ramp up generation as well as provide essential system services while remaining economical.

Getting the balance right

Each time an advantaged fuel is used, the right blend must be found depending on how much and what type is being utilised to ensure maximum efficiency and reliability.

This requires coordination across Drax between the fuel procurement team, aiming to source these lower-priced fuels, the materials handling and power generation teams who must quickly understand and resolve any issues surrounding fuel blends and the trading team, responsible for selling into the power market.

The cost savings achieved from using advantaged fuels combined with the highly efficient units Drax Group operates, helps keep costs down and that means lower electricity costs for everyone.

But this doesn’t mean these fuels will be used for the long term. Drax is continuing to decarbonise its power generation business. At Drax Power Station where three of its six power units have been upgraded to low carbon biomass, trials were underway in the spring and summer of 2017 to test a lower cost way of converting one of the three remaining coal units to run on compressed wood pellets. The Selby, North Yorkshire site is currently consulting with its local community on plans to repower one or two coal units to run on another flexible fuel – natural gas. If constructed, the gas power plant could be joined by a large battery storage facility – one which could provide immediate power and system services to the country’s electricity system while the gas turbines power up in the minutes that follow.

Coal’s days in the UK are numbered – and this is certainly a good thing – but while it remains a necessary part of meeting winter demand and balancing the system, advantaged fuels will be key to keeping it an affordable one too.

5 more things you never knew about forests

Forests have long been places of mystery for people. It’s within a dark wood that Virgil and then Dante locate the gates to the underworld, while Shakespeare’s magical Midsummer Night’s Dream plays out in a mystical forest near Athens.

And while fairies and portals may be the stuff of fantasy, the forests that inspired them remain a source of mystery to this day.

Here are five more things you might not know about forests.

The forest sector employs more than 50 million people around the world

Employment is one of the major driving forces of global urbanisation as waves of people in both developed and less developed countries head to cities in search of better wages and living standards. But outside of cities, industries still thrive – particularly forestry, which officially employs 13.2 million people around the world.

The World Bank even suggests that by counting people in informal forestry employment and those who earn a living indirectly through forests, timber or fuel, the number of people professionally involved in forestry is closer to 54 million worldwide.

Forestry’s total contribution to global GDP is also sizeable. It currently adds an impressive $120 billion directly – a number expected to grow by as much as 50% over the next 10 to 15 years. Even more impressive is the contribution of the wider timber and wood product sector, which generates as much as $600 billion – 1% of global GDP, according to the World Bank.

We will soon be able weigh the world’s forests

 We know forests blanket about 30% of the land on earth, but what about calculating the mass and volume of all those trees? That’s a different task entirely, but one which could offer important insights for sustainable forestry.

In 2021 the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch Earth Explorer Biomass, the first satellite to carry a P-band radar, which is capable of penetrating the forest canopies and capturing data on the density of tree trunks and branches. Essentially, it will be able to weigh the world’s forests.

Over the course of its five-year mission, it will produce 3D maps every six months, giving scientists data on forest density across eight growth cycles. The result will be a much clearer image of the amount of biomass present around the earth’s different forested areas and how it is changing over time as a result of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption.

Forests are an energy source that clean up after themselves

For all the IKEA furniture made from wood, 50% of the world’s total wood production is still used for energy with some 2.4 billion people globally using it for heating, cooking and electricity generation.

The world’s forests have an energy content about 10 times that of the annual primary energy consumption, making it a hugely useful resource in helping meet energy demand – if it is managed and used in a sustainable way.

As with other energy sources that are combusted, wood releases CO2, . However, if this fuel is drawn from a responsibly managed forest or a sustainable system of growing forests, its carbon emissions are offset by new tree plantings, which absorb carbon as they grow. This means the only emissions produced are those that come from transporting the wood itself.

The US Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by 2030, forestry mitigation – with the help of carbon pricing – could contribute to CO2 reductions of 0.2 to 13.8 gigatonnes a year. 


Forests improve drinking water

Forests provide what’s known as natural infrastructure, which not only regulate water levels but also improve the quality of drinking water. Root systems and organic material like the leaves and twigs that make up the forest floor absorb water, reducing runoff and erosion. They also play a part in absorbing nutrients that are harmful to water quality.

The forest canopy further helps this process by releasing water vapour, helping regulate rainfall and providing protection against aerial drifts of pesticides, which can filter back into water systems.

Forests can suck up a third of CO2 emissions

While governments around the world look to shift to cleaner, renewable energy sources and cut emissions, forests have been silently tackling climate change for centuries. Over the past few decades, the world’s forests have absorbed as much as 30% of annual global human generated CO2 emissions. In fact, their ability to deal with fossil fuel-derived carbon emissions is even written into the Paris Climate Agreement.

While natural forests can contribute massively to sequestering (absorbing and storing) greenhouse gases, managed forests can play an even more powerful role.

Younger trees absorb more CO2 to fuel their rapid growth compared to older trees with stored carbon reserves. Managed forests, with regular thinning and replanting of trees, ensure there are plentiful numbers of these carbon-hungry young trees around the world.

Read the original 5 things you never knew about forests here.