Britain now has the lowest emissions since Queen Victoria.

Britain’s CO2 emissions are now as low as they were in the reign of Queen Victoria — despite having a population 63% larger than in 1896, and having a far larger eonomy. How is that possible? Political ambition, wind power and natural gas. 

Finding the balance in the world’s energy mix is ​​important. Emissions must go down even as world energy demand is on the increase. In this article, we examine the thinking behind our transition from being an oil and gas company to becoming a broad energy company.

2017 was an environmental milestone for the British: the first day without any use of coal since the industrial revolution happened in 2017, and CO2 emissions haven't been lower since the reign of Queen Victoria.

Chief economist in Equinor, Eirik Wærness, is impressed by Britain’s achievement. “The UK is a good example of how you can invest in several areas at the same time, and how fossil energy forms can be well-matched with the new renewables,” he says.

We meet him in Holborn, London, an area steeped in ​​energy history. It was here that the world’s first coal-fired power station opened in 1882, and Britain became the first country to use electricity generated by coal. For four years, the power station provided electricity for 968 streetlamps that had formerly been powered by gas before it was forced to close. It failed to make a profit, and they switched back to gas. History is about to repeat itself.

The UK is a good example of how you can invest in several areas at the same time, and how fossil energy forms can be well-matched with the new renewables

Erik Wærness, Chief Economist, Equinor 

What has the UK done to succeed so well in reducing its CO2 emissions?

“Increased use of gas and a major focus on renewable electricity, such as wind power and solar, have made the UK less dependent on coal and reduced emissions. In addition, the authorities levy a high charge on power plant CO2 emissions, which stimulates more environmentally-friendly choices, making coal less profitable.”

How do Britons feel about the changes to where their energy comes from?
Meet the Payne family in the video below:

The twins Noah and Finley (6) are learning about wind power from their father, Robert Payne, who is an engineer at Dudgeon wind farm. Photo: VG Partner studio

Why gas will be important in the future
Coal accounted for less than seven percent of Britain’s power generation last year, down from 40 percent in 2012. At the same time, new renewable energy has grown and covers almost 30 percent of power demand, while nuclear and gas power accounts for the rest. 25 percent British gas consumption is supplied by Norway.

Erik Wærness believes gas will play an important role in the transition to a low-carbon society.

“Gas is the energy form that offers the quickest and easiest path to phasing out coal in the electricity sector, as it can act as a stable power source on the days when wind and solar power produce less power because the weather is calm or cloudy,” says Wærness.

“What’s more, gas is used as raw material in plastic products and industrial processes and heating and cooling of buildings. And it can be used as a fuel in the transport sector, thus replacing oil. There is great reason to believe that gas will play a significant role far into the future,” he adds.

Although gas is not a renewable energy source, it is still an attractive option because it produces more than 50 percent less CO2 in power generation than coal. Furthermore, gas has a big potential advantage once the technology is in place.

“Natural gas consists largely of methane gas, which is composed of carbon and hydrogen. If you manage to remove and store the carbon atom, we can use gas as a source of pure hydrogen. Then there are no limits on how much gas we can use,” says Wærness

Windmills in the water: The Dudgeon Marine Park is 40 kilometres off the coast of Great Yarmouth, England. Photo Ole Jørgen Bratland / Equinor

Offshore wind is growing
But it’s not only natural gas that has contributed to the UK’s record low CO2 emissions. Britain has actively supported the development of wind power in recent years, and today there are about 30 offshore wind farms operating or nearly completed.

“40 kilometres that way there are 67 large wind turbines with 154-metre wing spans generating electricity,” says Emil Orderud, pointing towards the sea, the wind almost blowing him over. He is managing director of Dudgeon, Equinor’s largest offshore wind farm, which is located here off the coast of Great Yarmouth.

“We opened in November last year, and so far, it has gone very well. Production has exceeded our expectations by far,” he says.

Emil Orderud. Photo: VG Partner studio

Why are you investing so much in wind power in the UK?

“Britain has a clear political ambition,” says Orderud.

“The British want to change their energy system and turn it towards more renewables. Offshore wind is one of the most important elements of this strategy, and we want to be part of that. Furthermore, the UK is fortunate with the conditions they have, which are ideal for developing offshore wind power. They have good coastlines for bottom-fixed installations and there is plenty of wind.”

Dudgeon alone now produces electricity for over 400,000 British households. Equinor’s two other offshore wind farms in the UK, Sheringham Shoal and Hywind Scotland, supply another 250,000 households with electricity.

Two long export cables transport the electricity from Dudgeon inland before power is sent into a substation connected to the national network.

As with all electricity power generation, the power produced must be used right away. Storage of electricity is one of the major challenges the energy industry faces in the transition to a more sustainable world energy mix.

Find out how Equinor is revolutionising renewables: Batwind, the world’s first battery for offshore wind

“Offshore wind can supply more than 20 percent of electricity demand in the UK in an average year, which is quite significant,” says Emil Orderud. “There has been rapid technological development over the past 10 years, and we are working to find good storage solutions.”

But if this works so well with 67 wind turbines, why don’t you just build more of them?

“The UK has taken a big step and has developed quite a few wind farms, but the country governs its own territory on land and in the sea. As developers, we are assigned areas we can develop, and we have to go about that in a cost-effective way. Building more turbines is not necessarily the answer. Putting the turbines in the right place is a science in itself,” says Orderud.

After working for 10 years for wind power, he is convinced that it is an important part of the future energy mix.

“It seems so obvious to me that a natural resource like wind should be exploited and utilised in a good way. The pace of technological development, along with the recent cost reductions, means that all the signs are that wind power will be become an even more important part of the future energy system,” he says.

Positive: Robert Payne, wife Sarah and twins Noah and Finley (6) are pleased that Britain has managed to reduce their CO2 emissions. Photo: VG Partner studio

“Didn’t think about the climate before I had children”
30 minutes southwest of Great Yarmouth, in a small town with 15,000 inhabitants called Beccles, live Robert Payne and his wife Sarah with their twins Noah and Finley (6). How do Britons feel about the transition to more gas and renewables?

“I think it’s very positive that we have managed to reduce our emissions so much. We have seen a huge shift from coal and oil to more renewable energy in recent years, with a lot of support from our politicians. I think the way we've done it has been good,” says Payne, who is an engineer employed at Dudgeon.

What is your domestic energy consumption like?

“It’s probably a 60-40 split between electricity and gas in our house. We depend on both. We have many electrical appliances, lighting and an electric car dependent on electricity, while we need gas for cooking and heating. We pay around GBP £135 (around NOK 1500 or USD $178) in total for electricity and gas this month,” says Payne.

He says that there has been a lot more focus on climate emissions and energy consumption in British media in recent years. And Britons have become more aware of where their power comes from. Payne himself is a good example of exactly that.

“I never really thought about the climate before we started a family and had children. Then it became important for me to think about what kind of world they are going to grow up in. We need to figure out how we can manage to solve energy challenges in a sustainable and climate-friendly way,” he says.

Hungry: Finley (6) waits impatiently for supper to be ready. Gas is used extensively for cooking and heating in Britain. Photo: VG partner studio

He says that there has been a lot more focus on climate emissions and energy consumption in British media in recent years. And Britons have become more aware of where their power comes from. Payne himself is a good example of exactly that.

“I never really thought about the climate before we started a family and had children. Then it became important for me to think about what kind of world they are going to grow up in. We need to figure out how we can manage to solve energy challenges in a sustainable and climate-friendly way,” he says.

Why changes to the energy systems take a long time
Back in London, Eirik Wærness is watching the boats going up and down the Thames. He points out that investing in renewables and natural gas, although beneficial, won’t be enough to meet the energy demand of the future.

What energy challenges do we have now and in the future?

“Firstly, we need to produce enough energy to meet the growing demand. And that means that we will still need to invest a lot in oil and gas to keep up. And the biggest challenge is that we must meet energy demand in a more sustainable way than we do presently. That means the energy mix must be changed. We need to introduce even more renewable electricity, and for the remaining fossil fuels we are going to use, we need to find solutions to ensure as low emissions as possible,” says Wærness.

Many people are impatient and want to see change now. Why are these changes taking so long?

“There are many reasons why it takes time. These are slow processes. There are major changes underway, both in terms of energy consumption and our chance to make things more efficient,” says Wærness.

“But these changes may not be very visible at a global level. The cars purchased in recent years will continue to drive on the roads for the next 15-20 years. The world economy is growing, and world population will be 2.5 billion more people by 2050, which will demand goods and services that requiring energy. We must deliver that,” he says.

“There are already half a billion people who do not have access to cheap and stable energy that they need to increase their living standards. Delivering this energy fast enough while changing the energy mix at the same time is extremely demanding,” says Wærness.

Optimism: Erik Wærness says there is good reason for optimism, but he also warns that there are major energy challenges ahead. Photo: VG Partner studio

Why can’t you reduce oil and gas at the same time as increasing renewable energy?

“The reason we have to balance continued investments in oil and gas, in parallel with the major focus on renewable energy, is first and foremost because they are two completely different forms of energy. New renewable energy is electricity, and we are investing a lot and will continue to do so. Here, we will replace coal as a source of electricity, and in due course this will start to take over natural gas’ role for electricity if we succeed. Secondly, the demand for oil and gas is still growingtoday and must be met. And it’s not only for electricity, but also for transport, heating, and production of plastics, to name but a few. Oil and gas are currently used for far more things than we can use renewable energy for.”

Here in the UK things are moving in the right direction, and they had record low emissions last year. Are there grounds for optimism?

“When we look at what is taking place in the power sector here, where emissions have become much lower, then it gives rise to optimism. We see positive changes and some areas that are moving quickly.

“Looking at what is happening in the power sector here, where emissions have become much lower, it gives rise to optimism. We see positive changes and parts that go fast in some places. Technology is developing very quickly in some areas, so there is great reason for optimism. But there is also reason to stress that there are some major energy challenges ahead. Balanced, realistic optimism is the best,” he says.