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COVID crisis triggers record fall in electricity demand

Electricity demand fell to its lowest quarterly level in many years during the second quarter of this year – a period which saw the continued growth of renewables and the decline of nuclear and coal as the COVID lockdown hit system demand.

These were the stand-out highlights of a new report on Britain’s power generation market from energy data analyst EnAppSys.

The study, which covered the three-month period to June 30 2020, showed that demand plunged by 25% from the previous quarter as the country continued its coronavirus-induced lockdown.

Despite levels of wind generation decreasing from the previous quarter’s record-breaking levels, renewables remained the greatest contributor to the fuel mix (42.5%) followed by gas (31.2%). The sunny spring weather meant that embedded solar generated a record 5 TWh, with wind and solar farms together often making up the majority of the fuel mix near the middle of the day.

However, nuclear generation saw its lowest quarterly output (11.2 TWh) for almost two decades. In May 2020, National Grid entered a contract with EDF to reduce output from the Sizewell B nuclear station to support system stability over summer – part of a strategy to balance the network through a period of exceptionally low demand due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, power output from coal plants fell to its lowest quarterly level since before 2002, as only Drax 5 and 6 generated during the quarter. This period saw a record-breaking 67 days and 16 hours without coal generation in the fuel mix, a run which started on April 9.

Paul Verrill, director of EnAppSys, said: “The COVID-19 induced lockdown continued into the quarter, with demand dropping to consistently low levels; 20% lower on average than those seen in Q2 2019. As Britain gradually comes out of lockdown, demand levels are recovering with higher demand being recorded in morning periods versus the same periods in 2019.

“This is possibly caused by the starting up of business and economic activity coupled with domestic demand still remaining higher as many still work from home.

“In the longer-term view of historical second quarters, total generation has generally declined since 2005, with a markedly steeper decrease occurring in Q2 2020. Previous trends have continued, with renewable generation increasing while gas, coal and nuclear continue to decline.

“The generally high level of renewables in Q2 2020 was primarily due to a combination of relatively high wind generation as well as the highest quarterly solar output of all time during a period of extended sunny weather.

“Older nuclear reactors have been seeing increasing levels of downtime as they move towards the end of their operational life, and an additional factor in the low nuclear output in Q2 was the extension of the Sizewell B contract by National Grid, allowing it to reduce the output of the power station to keep the system stable over a period of unusually low demand. Levels of nuclear generation are set to continue to decline as plants are scheduled to close in coming years.

“Meanwhile, coal was only in merit at the beginning of the quarter, which saw the longest run of zero coal generation since this power source was first used to generate electricity continuously in London by Thomas Edison in 1882.”

The second quarter of the year generally saw low or very low prices as the impact of the coronavirus lockdown was widely felt. The continued decline in prices appeared to plateau by the end of the quarter, aside from some spikes of very low prices, and they are expected to remain low into the next quarter due to subdued levels of economic activity.

Paul Verrill said: “During this quarter, the demand profile retained the new shape that was seen towards the end of Q1 2020, with the comparison of similar historic days showing a clear reduction in morning demand as demand within working hours dropped off. While evening peaks remained, they were less clearly defined, spreading out from a clear 5:00pm peak to a general high between 5:00pm and 10:00pm. The evening cooking/ lighting peak still occurred but due to socioeconomic factors this was not over as narrow a time range as usual.”

In the quarter, 42.5% of power generation came from renewable projects, 31.2% from gas-fired plants, 18.6% from nuclear plants, 7.6% from power imports and 0.2% from coal plants.

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