Electricity generated by solar only grew by 2% in 2023 despite what Carbon Brief described as a “surge” of new capacity connecting to the UK grid in the same year. Image: Innova.

New research from Carbon Brief has revealed that fossil-fuel generated electricity in the UK fell by 22% in 2023 to its lowest level since 1957.

Analysing data from chapters five and six of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s (DESNZ) Energy Trends alongside Balancing Mechanism Reports, Carbon Brief revealed that electricity generated by fossil fuels has fallen by two-thirds (199TWh) to 104TWh since peaking in 2008.

Within this coal dropped by 97% (199TWh) and gas by 45% (80TWh).

The decline of coal and gas

In total, fossil fuels made up 33% of the UK’s electricity mix last year; gas made up 31% of this share, with coal adding just over 1% and oil just below 1%.

Carbon Brief noted the significant decline in fossil fuels’ presence in the UK electricity mix in comparison to 1957, when they made up 97% of total electricity generated. This figure remained relatively stagnant until the rise of nuclear power began in the late 1950s, which took over part of the fossil fuel share as illustrated below.

Graph showing the share of UK annual electricity supply. Graph: Carbon Brief.

Even with the increase in nuclear capacity, fossil fuels still generated 76% of the UK’s electricity in 2008, with gas accounting for 45% of the energy mix and coal 30%.

In 2023 however, gas produced 98TWh (down 80TWh from 2008), whilst coal produced 4TWh, a 115TWh reduction since 2008.

In fact, the above graph shows that coal has almost disappeared from the UK’s electricity mix, as all but one of the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations shut down in 2023.

These were West Burton A, which closed in April, and Kilroot, which closed at the end of September. This leaves Ratcliffe, operated by utility firm Uniper, as the last operational coal-fired power station in the UK, and is expected to close in September 2024.

But what else caused the significant decrease in electricity produced by fossil fuels last year?

Carbon Brief attributed these declines to two factors: the rapid expansion of renewables, which increased sixfold (by 113TWh) from 2008, and reduced electricity demand, which decreased by 21% (83TWh) since 2008.

The impact of these factors acted as a “pincer,” said Carbon Brief, “squeezing [electricity generated by fossil fuels] from two directions.”

Ramping up renewables

According to Carbon Brief’s analysis, renewable electricity output climbed from 23TWh in 2008 to 135TWh in 2023, matching the record output recorded in 2022.

Electricity generated by renewables in 2023 was split as follows:

  • 14TWh from solar
  • 82TWh from wind
  • 5TWh from hydro
  • 35TWh from bioenergy

Carbon Brief noted that UK renewable output has almost stagnated at 134TWh since 2020.

The increase in electricity generated by solar was also minimal in 2023, growing by only 2%, despite what Carbon Brief described as a “surge” of new capacity connecting to the UK grid in the same year.

Research by Rystad Energy, cited by Drax’s ‘Electric Insight’s’ quarterly report in December, showed that the rate of Britain’s solar installations had tripled in the last year, with 2.9GW of domestic and utility-scale solar installed between 2022 and September 2023 – compared to 0.9GW added between 2021 and 2022 -bringing Britain’s total to 18.1GW.

Drax added that the rate of solar installations last year will mean that 2023 saw more solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity installed than in the past six years put together, with only 1GW added between 2018 and 2022.

The pace of solar installation in the UK is only set to accelerate, according to Carbon Brief, which cited Rystad Energy’s expectations for solar capacity to grow above 25GW in 2025.

The small increase in solar-generated electricity relative to capacity growth may be in part due to the unusually sunny year experienced in 2022, noted Carbon Brief, whereas the number of sunshine hours in 2023 were “roughly in line with the long-term average” according to government figures.

Reduced demand

Carbon Brief also highlighted a significant decrease in demand reduction as a contributor to a low-carbon 2023.

The organisation noted that demand fell by 21% to 313TWh in 2023, compared to 396TWh in 2008, and speculated that this was down to a “poorly understood” combination of more efficient electrical appliances; costs induced by wholesale gas prices; and the UK shifting to a more service-led, rather than manufacturing-heavy, economy.

These factors combined have led to the UK’s lowest-carbon electricity mix in 2023 since records began.

Carbon Brief revealed that the carbon intensity of the UK’s electricity last year reached only 162g/kWh in 2023, 13% less than in 2022.

This follows Britain’s lowest-carbon quarter on record in Q3 (July to September) 2023, which, according to Drax’s Electric Insights quarterly report, saw carbon emissions fall to 143g/kWh.

Despite a welcome downward trajectory, Carbon Brief warned that this figure remains “a long way from the government’s ambition for 95% low-carbon electricity by 2030 – just seven years from now – and a fully decarbonised grid by 2035.”

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