Coal: Are reports of its death greatly exaggerated?
4 January 2021
There are plenty of headlines when GB doesn't burn coal for a while, but few mention the many occasions when coal is generating more electricity than all of our wind farms put together.
We all want to see the back of coal from the point of view of emissions, but how close are we to being able to do that really? What is the truth, rather than the hype?
And - apart from establishing how much coal we're actually burning - we'll consider the question "Is coal being burnt to satisfy our export commitments?"
National Grid forecasts
If you've looked at the National Grid's forecasts - as contained in their FES documents - you may well be rather confused about what is going on.
Let's take a look at the National Grid's projections over the last few years.
In 2017 the National Grid projections showed coal continuing to be used to generate electricity up to 2024 at the latest. The scenario projections (1st column chart below) for the amount of electricity to be generated from coal in 2017 varied from 2.86 TWh to 14.84 TWh.
If we then look at what was actually reported for 2017 in the FES 2018 documentation (2nd column chart), the reported generation from coal was 19.1 TWh, which was considerably above the top of the range of projections.
If we use the official source of information on electricity generation by source - i.e. the Elexon website - the total generated from coal in 2017 (3rd column chart) was just over 20.61 TWh, a figure which is a little above the one reported in the subsequent year's FES.
The 2018 projections (1st column chart below) painted a very different pricture, varying from 0.3 TWh to 0.6 TWh for 2018. Why the extreme and very sudden drop?
Looking at FES 2019, the actual amount of electricity generated from coal in 2018 was 10.1 TWh (2nd column chart).
However, the actual amount generated from coal according to Elexon (3rd column chart) was almost 15.4 TWh.
Did the National Grid not realise that they would still need to burn a lot of coal to counter the intermittency of wind?
In the FES 2019 projections (1st column chart below) the 5 Year Forecast (what might be loosely considered the actual plan) showed 0.02 TWh for electricity generated from coal. This is 5Y in the chart. The scenario forecasts varied from 0.02 TWh to 3.67 TWh.
In the National Grid's 2020 workbook the actual amount of electricity generated from coal in 2019 (2nd column chart) is shown as 0.04 TWh. This is clearly totally incorrect, as the Elexon website shows coal as producing just over 5.9 TWh (3rd column chart).
Why are the National Grid's forecasts and actual figures so wrong now? Do they always think that "next year we won't really need to burn much coal", although we always do?
The FES 2020 scenario projections and 5 Year Forecast (1st column chart below) continue to anticipate very low levels of generation from coal, varying from 0.04 TWh to 0.16 TWh.
At the time of writing this we do not know what FES 2021 will claim to be the actual amount of electricity generated from coal as it won't be published until the summer of 2021, but we do know what the official Elexon data tell us, and that is that the total amount was almost 4.4 TWh (2nd column chart).
(Whilst the decline in the use of coal from 2019 to 2020 may seem encouraging, it should be remembered that 2020 has experienced a signficant decrease in demand - including peak demand - due to pandemic lockdowns and other restrictions.)
Will FES 2021 show the true figures for 2020, and will the forecasts for coming years reflect a more realistic and believable approach to modelling by the National Grid?
Which forecasts for coal use should be used when planning to achieve our latest emissions targets, as the National Grid's seem to fall well short of the job?
Are we exporting the electricity we generate from coal?
Apart from this strange disconnect between the National Grid's projections and the evidence from the standard recorded data, there is another rather baffling issue.
During 2020 GB exported almost 4.5 TWh of electricity over interconnectors. The National Grid say that interconnectors "allow us to export excess energy to our neighbours when they need it".
But in what way is this excess energy? For every moment we were exporting we were generating electricity using gas, and for over 40% of the time that we were exporting electricity via interconnectors we were burning coal. Surely that's not "excess energy".
It would be great if somebody from the National Grid - or maybe somebody from Renewable UK - could explain that to us.