Storm Bella Helped Great Britain Set a Wind Power Milestone


The sun starts to rise behind an offshore wind farm off the Great Yarmouth coastline.

The sun starts to rise behind an offshore wind farm off the Great Yarmouth coastline.
Photo: Matt Cardy (Getty Images)

The United Kingdom, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, is now home to the wind energy revolution that’s reaching a new crescendo. Great Britain hit a major milestone late last week when wind farms generated more than half of the island’s energy needs.

The impetus for the big bump in wind generation was Storm Bella, which came roaring across the Atlantic the day after Christmas. It generated winds of up to 106 mph (171 kph), wreaking havoc on infrastructure in the UK and parts of mainland Europe. But the powerful winds also sent turbines spinning, generating copious amounts of electricity.

All told, wind farms across Great Britain, the main island of the UK, generated 5.14 gigawatts of electricity. That was 50.7% of all electricity generated in Great Britain that day, according to data kept by power supplier Drax. That marks the first time more than half of the island’s energy was supplied by wind. Earlier this month, wind farms generated more total electricity, but it was a smaller share percentage-wise because demand was higher. But by my count, both days are big wins in a year when we could use a few wins.

The Boxing Day breakdown between onshore and offshore wind was roughly 60/40%. That nearly 40% of total wind power came from offshore is a testament to the UK’s commitment to the technology. It’s by far the world leader with nearly 10 gigawatts of capacity. In comparison, the U.S.—which is admittedly a laggard despite having ample offshore wind resources—has 30 megawatts or roughly 0.3% of the UK’s capabilities.

Factor in nuclear, solar, and hydropower—all zero-carbon forms of energy—and nearly three-quarters of all power generated on Dec. 26 came from clean sources. (Drax would also lump biomass burning in to bump the percentage even higher, but that would also involve some sketchy accounting, so nevermind them.) All told, every kilowatt hour of electricity generated emitted 0.2 pounds (80 grams) of carbon dioxide or less than half of the annual average this year, which itself is a record low.

It’s the latest astounding milestone as the country decarbonizes. Last year, it went a week without coal for the first time in 137 years and generated more power from renewables than fossil fuels for the first time. This year, it went more than two months without coal contributing an iota of electricity to the grid. The falling price of renewables means that we can almost certainly expect these trends to continue into 2021. The pressure of the UK holding the world’s big climate conference next year also doesn’t hurt.

The grid transformation is a success story, though there’s still a long road to decarbonizing the UK. In particular, the country needs to reduce emissions from, well, its roads. Transportation continues to be the biggest source of emissions, and the country’s highway expansion program could largely negate its plan to phase out the sale of gas-powered cars. Just as installing more renewables will lower emissions, so will building fewer roads.



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