Thanks to its neighbors, the UK’s electricity is getting cleaner

Bring it on.
Bring it on.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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In 2017, the UK made history when it consumed more electricity from low-carbon sources—such as nuclear, solar, and wind—than from fossil fuels. Better still, the fossil fuels Britain burned were mostly natural gas, the country put out fewer emissions that it would’ve through burning coal.

The country’s steady decarbonization will continue, thanks to its neighbors.

This is because of a peculiar wrinkle in the UK’s electricity market. The country consumes more electricity during winters than it does in summers, so it needs to ensure that there is enough extra capacity to meet the extra demand at peak times. The government finds the necessary capacity via annual auctions, where power companies that use coal, natural gas, or nuclear power can bid a price to fulfill that demand ahead of time. (Renewables, such as wind and solar, are excluded from the auction because they are paid separately in the UK. In any case, these power sources are variable in nature and thus cannot guarantee energy production, which is the purpose of the auction.)

Until 2017, the auction included bids only from UK providers. That was a boon for fossil-fuel power, because providers could lock in higher prices to ensure that consumers weren’t left in the dark when demand peaked. These companies have secured £3.4 billion worth of capacity-market subsidies, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).

This year’s auction has been opened up to “interconnectors.” These are the companies that operate the long cables that link the UK to the EU’s electricity grid. Four such interconnectors exist: IFA to France (capacity 2 GW); BritNed to the Netherlands (1 GW); Moyle to Northern Ireland (500 MW); and East West to Ireland (500 MW). We can ignore the latter two, because they most take electricity from the UK rather than provide excess back.

The interconnectors tend to rely less on fossil fuels, explains Jonathan Marshall, an energy analyst at the ECIU. About 90% of France’s electricity comes from low-carbon sources: roughly 70% nuclear and 20% renewables. The Netherlands’ electricity mix is dirtier than the UK, with only 15% coming from renewables, but on windier days its offer is cleaner than UK’s mostly fossil-fuel power bids. Moreover, within the next few years, two more interconnectors—one to Belgium and another to Norway—are coming online. Both of these countries boast very high proportions of low-carbon sources in their electricity mix.

If the interconnectors win some bids, the upshot will be that the UK’s electricity mix will continue to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. This is a major concern for fossil-fuel power companies in the country. The UK’s energy ministry now expects only 6 GW of new gas-fired power plants to come online by 2035, compared with a previous projection of 14 GW.

Brexit brings uncertainty to this co-operation. But even after the UK leaves the EU, interconnectors will continue to play an important role in Britain’s energy mix. And as the UK’s neighbors continue to embrace renewables, sending more more low-carbon electricity across the sea will accelerate the UK’s energy transformation.