Past and current experiences with power sector transition

Although the scale of transformation required to decarbonise the power sector is daunting, history provides several examples of rapid transformation in the technology mix of generation.

Before the first oil shock in the early 1970s, many electricity generating plants were oil-fired. The sharp increase in oil prices made many of these plants uneconomic, and led to their replacement. In Denmark, for example, electricity production from oil plummeted from 69% in the early 1970s to less than 5% by 1985; it was replaced by coal-fired plants for base-load production (Figure 2). In Sweden and France, the oil shock led to the scaling up of nuclear generation, with oil for base-load generation being phased out by 1985.

Similarly, the 1990s "dash for gas" in the United Kingdom prompted roughly a halving of oil and coal-fired generation in ten years, replaced by the new cheaper gas-fired technology. In each of these cases, the dramatic change in generation shares was not matched by a commensurate change in installed capacity: e.g. between 1970 and 1985 in Denmark, generation from oil plants dropped from almost 14 000 gigawatt hours (GWh) to less than 1 500 GWh, while the corresponding installed capacity was reduced by only 40%, from 3 400 megawatts (mW) to 2 000 MW. This indicates that, rather than being completely retired, many of the old plants stayed in service to meet peak demand periods.

These examples demonstrate that it is possible to dramatically change a region's power generation mix over a relatively short period of time. In looking forward to a low-carbon transition, it should be acknowledged that these transitions were pursued in a different context.

Figure 2

Historical electricity production and electrical capacity by fuel in Denmark and the United Kingdom

Electricity production: Denmark

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