Renewable energy has overtaken fossil fuels for the first time in providing Britain’s power, generating more than 40% in the first three months of the year, a study has found.
Storms during the wettest and windiest February since records began helped make it the first month ever when more electricity was produced by wind farms than gas-fired power stations across the country.
Wind farms were vying for top spot with gas in the electricity mix, generating 30.5% of power, just behind fossil fuels which contributed 30.6% between January and March.
It also found that demand for electricity in the week fell to its lowest levels since 1982 – down by 13% – as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, which began in late March.
The strict measures meant a reduction in rail, tram and Tube services, with machinery, computers, lights and heaters not being used in industry, offices and schools.
The research claims it is “like living through a month of Sundays” for weekday power demand, while weekends have seen even less electricity needed on the grid – although domestic power increased due to people having previously been told to “stay at home”, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Iain Staffell, lead author of the quarterly Electric Insights reports, said: “Britain’s electricity system is under pressure like never before, with both the country’s weather getting more extreme and a global pandemic testing its resolve.
“So far in 2020 we’ve seen companies reducing their demand for electricity to help keep the grid stable when supply from wind power rapidly decreased, and then the COVID-19 lockdown caused many businesses to shut up shop, reducing electricity demand and creating new challenges with oversupply of power.
“Having flexibility within the power system at these critical moments is crucial to keeping Britain’s lights on”, he continued.
The lockdown has also had an impact on carbon pollution, with emissions from British power production falling by 35% on the same period last year.
Only time will tell whether the changes will continue after the restrictions are lifted, but the analysis suggests that with “even a small share of the population continuing to work from home on some days, there could be a lasting impact on electricity demand for years to come”.
Even before the nationwide lockdown, over the first quarter of the year the grid was cleaner than in the same period in 2019.
Record levels of wind power in stormy conditions helped push down electricity generation from fossil fuels by 25%, and emissions per unit of power produced were down 20% on the first quarter of 2019.
The trend is expected to continue, with more large offshore wind farms coming online this year.
During times when wind power dropped in calmer conditions, flexible power stations and large companies reducing demand helped balance the grid, according to the report.
Two coal-powered plants were retired at the end of March, but before that they burned all their remaining fuel, running continuously for 117 days, pushing up coal generation for the quarter for the first time since 2012.
Britain is currently in a record coal-free run of more than 40 days.
There are just three coal plants left in Britain, with the Drax power station in North Yorkshire due to close in March 2021, while the others could shut before the government’s 2024 deadline.