• WWF/Sandbag report argues UK needs not have a ‘gas bridge’ after coal phase out

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and undertaken by climate change think tank Sandbag has argued that the UK can bypass new large gas plants when it phases out unabated coal-firing by 2025, instead going ‘clean’. Between 2012 and 2017, 16 GW of coal-fired capacity, 8 GW of gas fired capacity, and 1.5 GW of nuclear capacity closed in the UK, with no additional coal-fired capacity or nuclear energy being added. The lights in the kingdom stayed on, however, as demand fell around 10%, excess capacity was drawn down, new gas, wind and solar capacity came online, and some coal firing was replaced by wood firing (at Drax and Lynemouth). Thirty-two gigawatts of renewable capacity was added in the last decade (though with typical capacity factors of ~33% for wind and ~12% for solar, compared to ~60% for coal and gas, the capacity itself can be misleading), pushing the share of renewables in the electricity supply to 28%, and by 2020 it is projected that renewables will supply 40% of demand, the largest contributor to the sector. With renewables continuing to grow beyond 2020, it is they, along with vastly greater importation of electricity from continental Europe, which Sandbag sees as providing any new capacity from 2025. Importation is expected to grow from about 6% last year to 22% by 2025, with 12 GW of interconnector capacity in various stages of development, driven by the UK having a higher floor price for carbon emissions than most other European countries. In the years up to 2025, however, gas will provide a significant portion of the cover for phased-out coal, despite the eye-catching headline claim of the report. It includes an analysis of the capacity market auction from February this year, which shows that of the remaining 13.7 GW of coal-fired capacity in the UK, there are already contracts to replace 11.6 GW. While 4 GW of this comes from batteries and importation, the rest comes from existing large gas fired plants being expanded and smaller gas fired plants being built, as well as diesel firing and further demand reduction. In defining ‘large gas’ as something larger than 450 MW, as the report does, there seems to be something of a rhetorical sleight of hand, as a 376 MW combined cycle plant and a 400 MW open-cycle gas plant will be built to cover the closing coal generation, not to mention the expansion of existing large gas plants. In total, about 4.2 GW of the 11.6 GW of closing coal capacity is contracted to be replaced with gas. The report provides much interesting information, even if the spin on it is somewhat misleading. The large role identified for importation also raises questions about if the UK wishes to become a substantial net importer of electricity. Spreading renewables networks over broader areas is a good idea to dampen the effects of intermittency, and in that sense importation makes sense, but it also means less security of supply, which may give strategic pause for thought.