Blog / The impact of COVID-19 on Great Britain’s electricity system

The impact of COVID-19 on Great Britain’s electricity system

14th September 2020

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What impact did COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown have on Great Britain’s electricity? The latest Drax Electric Insights report conducted by academics from Imperial College London, is an independent analysis of Great Britain’s electricity system during the second quarter of 2020.

During April, May and June we saw our day-to-day lives shift considerably as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. With millions furloughed or working from home and shops shut down for weeks and months on end – there were unprecedented impacts on the power system too. Here, we look at some of the headlines:

Solar produced more power than coal

The second quarter of 2020 presented a record-breaking opportunity for coal. In May, Britain’s solar panels produced more power than ever, providing more than 10% of the month’s electricity demand.

The reason for this record is two-fold: with lockdown still in place, reduced road and air traffic meant less air pollution and contrails in the sky which would ordinarily scatter or absorb some of the incoming sunlight. Secondly, favourable conditions bought unusually good weather throughout spring too.

Weekly-average share of electricity generation from coal-fired power stations and solar panels

Weekly-average share of electricity generation from coal-fired power stations and solar panels

In contrast, every coal power station spent the whole month sitting idle – making May Britain’s first ever full month with zero electricity generated from coal.

And there’s celebration in order, too - the reduction in coal meant that by the start of July, Britain’s power system had clocked up 8,760 hours without coal – equivalent to a full year. The first ‘zero-coal anniversary’ has long been in the making, with the first zero-coal hour happening back in May 2016.

Weekly-average share of electricity generation from coal-fired power stations and solar panels

Cumulative number of hours with zero coal-fired electricity generation in Britain

Carbon emissions down

With reduced demand, boosted renewables and the near-total abandonment of coal, there’s no surprise that carbon emissions were down throughout April-June. In fact, carbon emissions from electricity generation was pushed below 10 million tonnes – the lowest in modern times.

Carbon intensity (the number of grams of carbon dioxide that it takes to make one unit of electricity at a kilowatt per hour (kWh)) also dropped to a new low of 18 g/kWh in the middle of the Spring Bank Holiday. This was a result of favourable conditions for wind and solar generation. Together, nuclear and renewables produced 90% of Britain’s electricity, leaving just 2.8GW to come from fossil fuels.

The generation mix over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, highlighting the mix on the Sunday afternoon with the lowest carbon intensity on record

The generation mix over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, highlighting the mix on the Sunday afternoon with the lowest carbon intensity on record

Britain’s electricity supply mix

Two-fifths of Britain’s electricity came from renewables last quarter, while coal supplied just 1/500th. The prospect of zero coal over a whole quarter now seems reachable, considering coal’s share was 1/5th of the mix just 5 years ago.

Britain’s electricity supply mix in the second quarter of 2020

Britain’s electricity supply mix in the second quarter of 2020

Download the Electric Insights report below to see full findings below.

Download Electric Insights report

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