Could Renewables Overtake Fossil fuels to Become the UK’s Top Power Source in 2020?

Europe has recently reached a major milestone in its journey to transform the way it generates energy. According to London based, Ember, an independent climate think-tank, renewables now account for a greater share of Europe’s energy mix than fossil fuels and are now secure as the EU’s main source of electricity. The first half of 2020 saw just 34% of Europe’s power coming from coal, gas, and oil, in comparison to the 40% that came directly from solar, wind and hydro sources. At the same time use of renewable energy went up by over a tenth and carbon dioxide emissions fell by nearly a quarter.

The UK also experienced the favourable weather conditions that played a big part in Europe’s recent successes. These storms helped make February 2020 the first month on record when more electricity was produced by wind farms than gas-fired power stations in the UK. It was truly a landmark moment when the UK renewable power output overtook fossil fuels for the first time in February 2020.

Consistently high winds were a feature throughout the period with output from wind farms was more than 10GW for 63% of the quarter, and more than 5GW for 85% of it.

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The Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES), also known as Westminster’s “energy bible,” documents forensic detail on British energy use. Their latest report, published towards the end of July, disclosed that the UK has broken yet more records, with 37.1% of all energy generated throughout 2019 coming from renewable sources. The combined domestic output of wind, solar and hydropower is documented as being up by 11% if you compare it to the previous year, and bioenergy output is also up by nearly 2%.

According to authoritative analysis by Carbon Brief, the third quarter of 2019, saw UK’s windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro plants generate “more electricity than the combined output from power stations fired by coal, oil or gas.” This was the first-ever quarter where renewable generation outstripped fossil fuels in British history.  These figures highlight the potential and progress of green industries in industrialized, western nations.

A new milestone was reached in the first quarter of 2020 with renewables generating 35.4TWh which was more than fossil fuels combined. Wind, solar, biomass and hydro sources made up 41.8 per cent of the renewables mix. This equates to a significant increase from the first quarter of 2019 when renewables produced 27.2TWh. During the period between January and March 44.6% of total power generation was produced by renewables, with the rest generated by gas-fired plants (29.1%), nuclear plants (15.3%), power imports (7.3%) and coal plants (3.7%).

The credit for the rapid growth of the renewables industry has been chalked up to coal plants coming offline ahead of the government’s deadline, as well as the spurt in expansion of the UK’s offshore wind sector. Wind power has made a big difference to the figures, with 10% of energy produced coming from offshore installations and 10% coming from turbines peppered around the British countryside.

With businesses shutting up shop and more people working from home, electricity demand fell during the Coronavirus lockdown to its lowest level since 1982. Renewables came into their own during this period as they allowed the flexibility within the power system that is needed at these critical moments and were crucial to keeping Britain’s lights on.

Melanie Onn, RenewableUK’s deputy chief executive, said the figures show us “Just how far we’ve come in the revolution in power generation.” This is particularly so if you consider that the UK was only generating 7% of its energy needs from renewables just a decade ago. Looking back to 2010 it is easy to see the dramatic shift in generation and consumption. Just 10 years ago the renewable energy industry was still a relative upstart in comparison to the titan of coal and gas with three quarters of all energy still coming from fossil fuels.

Melanie Onn writes that:

“At a time when so many things seem uncertain, the consistent rise of renewables, keeping the UK powered up, bringing billions in investment in new energy infrastructure and creating highly skilled jobs all over the country, is a terrific success story we can all be proud of.”

There were many people who were still sceptical about the power of renewables at the beginning of the decade. Renewables were after all taking on the might of the entrenched and established fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuel purists questioned the reliability and affordability of green technology believing that a country as energy-glugging as the UK wouldn’t be able to generate enough of its energy mix from renewable sources. This case has been decidedly disproved however, in an energy revolution that has seen new developments in renewables accelerate much faster than anybody could have hoped for. As the decade comes to an end, renewables are providing amongst the cheapest forms of electricity that for substantial periods of the year have overtaken its more carbon intensive counterparts. With green energy technology becoming ever more efficient and more acceptable to consumers it looks likely that records will continue to be broken at a pace of knots.

Given the success stories on both sides of the channel you could be forgiven for daring to imagine that the UK could celebrate a year that sees renewable power as the top power source of the country. Many in the renewable energy industry are beginning to wonder what next year’s figures might look like.

Donald Speirs of specialist renewables business Dulas, writes that:

 “We just keep seeing records broken and the whole industry has intense momentum behind it now. Just earlier this year, we saw the longest period without coal energy since the industrial revolution, with the National Grid reporting a two-month hiatus from coal at the last count. And, with the resurgence of interest in energy storage combined with enjoyed favourable conditions for wind and solar in the first two quarters of the year, the industry is looking incredibly promising.”

Like most global economies the UK economy has been affected by Covid-19. However, the government’s determination to make the economic recovery a green one propelled by the legally binding goal of achieving net zero by 2050 could well mean that we’ll see some impressive and era-defining progress come Spring 2021. It is looking increasingly likely that 2020 will mark the start of a new era of renewables dominance.

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