Achieving net-zero in the UK through an integrated energy system

The Communities Secretary, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, recently rejected permission for an open cast mine near Druridge Bay, stating that the proposal “is still not environmentally acceptable”. This announcement follows a lengthy decision process and extensive media coverage, including a Public Inquiry and an appeal to the High Court. In this blog CESI Director, Dr Sara Walker, comments on the case which was supported by evidence presented by CESI’s previous Director, Prof Phil Taylor on CESI’s whole systems approach to energy systems integration.

Druridge Bay, Northumberland

About the author: Dr Sara Walker

Dr Sara Walker is Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, Director of the Newcastle University Centre for Energy and Reader of Energy in the University’s School of Engineering. Her research is on energy efficiency and renewable energy at building scale.

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In 2014, a proposal was put forward to remove 3 million tonnes of coal from an opencast mine at Highthorn, close to Druridge Bay, on the Northumberland coast. The proposed developer, HJ Banks & Co Ltd, argued coal fired power stations are essential for the security of the UK’s energy supply and in July 2016, planning permission for the mine was approved by Northumberland County Council.

In a landmark move, central Government called a Public Inquiry on the grounds of climate change – the first time any planning permission decision has been called to inquiry on this basis.

In March 2018, the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid stated he had concluded the project should not go ahead on the grounds that it would exacerbate climate change. This rejection was the first time any planning permission decision has been refused on this basis, setting a precedent for all future applications.  This was seen as a significant step in taking tackling climate change seriously, showing the UK to be leading in this regard.

Following the announcement of the planning rejection, Banks lodged an appeal in the High Court.  The High Court found in favour of Banks in October 2018, returning the case to the Communities Secretary to reconsider the arguments presented.

At the Planning Inquiry, the expert witness for Banks argued that if coal fired power stations are phased out, a significant number of new gas fired power stations would be required, providing 7GW of gas generation. They also claimed other cleaner sources of energy cannot be relied upon as a consistent source of energy. Wind power, for example, provides an intermittent source of energy as the wind does not always blow. Similarly, the sun does not always shine, so photovoltaic systems will not generate sufficient energy. For these reasons, opening the new mine would have been an important step in ensuring that the UK maintains a good supply of coal for its power stations. However, there is no single source of fuel that provides the energy to satisfy the whole of the UK’s energy requirements. Instead, it is essential to take a whole systems approach when considering the UK’s energy mix.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) collates data on the UK’s energy generation mix.  The latest figures were released in July 2020 [1] and compare data for 2019 against previous years.  The shares of electricity generation by fuel in 2018 and 2019 are illustrated in Figure 1. These show that gas generated electricity increased slightly to 40.6%.  Electricity from renewables (wind, hydro, solar, wave, tidal and bioenergy) achieved a record high of 37.1% (121TWh), which is the first time renewables have provided over a third of the total generation mix. During the same period, the share of electricity generated from coal reduced to 2.1% (6.9TWh).  This represents a record low, down 59% compared to 2018.  The figures show that coal is declining in importance and that we have many options to replace it.

Figure 1 The share of electricity generation by fuel in 2018 and 2019 [1]

An integrated energy system

In his expert witness testimony to the Public Inquiry, CESI’s former Director and current Associate Director, Professor Phil Taylor, emphasised the need to take a whole systems view, highlighting CESI’s research into an integrated energy system. The UK can phase out coal-fired power stations by increasing the utilisation of existing gas facilities plus a small increase in capacity in power from gas and combining this with power produced from renewables such as wind, biomass and PV. We can store energy when we have more than is needed, or when there is too much for network cables to carry, and then release it when is required. Britain also imports electricity via physical links known as interconnectors. The UK energy regulator, Ofgem, forecasts that planned interconnector projects will lead to a capacity of 7.3GW by 2021 (compared to total GB system generation capacity of 77.9GW in 2019). In addition, the electricity demand could be managed through Demand Side Response (DSR), where consumers are given incentives to reduce their energy demand by reducing usage or turning off non‐essential items when there is a peak in electricity demand.

CESI evidence therefore showed that, by balancing supply and demand on the electricity grid, we can phase out coal and reduce the need to build new power stations. An additional benefit of decarbonising our energy system more rapidly is that this offers the opportunity to also decarbonise our transport and heat sectors.

“We are delighted that evidence provided by the National Centre for Energy Systems Integration has supported this landmark decision to reject further extraction of coal on grounds of Climate Change. Our work has clearly demonstrated that a Whole Systems approach with Systems Integration can enable us to decarbonise our energy systems whilst maintaining reliability and security of supply”

Director of CESI, Dr Sara Walker

Net Zero

In September 2020, the Communities Secretary, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, rejected the open cast mine, stating that  the “substantial extent of the landscape harm means that the proposal is still not environmentally acceptable, nor can it be made so by planning conditions or obligations”. 

This decision will help the UK to achieve its target to phase out coal by 1 October 2024, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2020. It will also the support the ambitious aims of cutting carbon emissions targets set by councils in the North East of England.  These include Northumberland County Council, which has set the target of being carbon neutral by 2030.  The implications of this decision for our future energy supply are significant and will affect us all.


  1. Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2020, Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy [accessed 9/10/2020]

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