The UK Takes A Major Step Towards Phasing Out Fossil Fuels

New analysis from the independent climate think tank Ember in partnership with Agora Energiewende has shown that the UK’s renewable electricity outpaced its fossil fuel generation for the first time in 2020. According to Ember, renewables could remain the largest source of electricity in the future.

Renewable energy sources, wind, solar, bioenergy and hydropower all combined to generate a record-breaking 42% of the UK’s power in 2020. This compares with 41% generated from gas and coal plants together.

In what was a remarkable year the new report revealed that renewables have finally tipped the balance – in 2019 renewables generated 37 per cent of the UK’s electricity compared with 45 per cent for fossil fuels.

The report further suggests that harmful carbon-emitting fossil fuels, coal and gas are on their way out as a source of power generation in the UK. 

June 2020 saw the UK completing a record-breaking run without coal-fired power. The run came to an end on 16th June after nearly 68 days and made it the longest run without coal since 1882. By the time, the coal-free run ended it had far outstripped the previous record for the length of time the UK had gone without fossil fuel of approximately 18 days set in June 2019.

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Though renewable energy has outstripped fossil fuels during the summer months before, this is the first time that renewables have been the main source of the UK’s electricity over a year.

This turnaround between fossil fuels and renewables came as energy demands fell last year as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns and took place on the back of longer-term declines in electricity use.

Ember said that the growth of windfarms was one of the main reasons for the UK’s renewable record. Very nearly a quarter of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind turbines in 2020 which is double the share of wind power in 2015 and up from a fifth of the UK’s electricity in 2019. In comparison, electricity from gas-fired power plants was forced to a five-year low of 37% of the UK’s electricity with coal power plants accounting for just 2% of the electricity mix.

A representative from the firm said:

“Analysis by Ember reveals that a major milestone has been reached in 2020 in the United Kingdom, as renewables overtook fossil fuels as the main source of electricity. With coal power already near zero, fossil gas was forced to a five-year low in 2020 by growth in wind power and below-average demand due to Covid-19. While UK renewables production is dominated by wind, it still remains overly reliant on risky bioenergy, which must be replaced with cleaner power to fully decarbonise the UK grid.” 

However, gas still remains the UK’s single largest power source as the renewables record portion for 2020 is made up of different energy sources.

Bioenergy, which is power generated by burning wood pellets grew a little in 2020 to make up 12% of the UK’s electricity. Using this energy source has raised concerns as it carries with it a much higher risk than wind and solar of negative climate and environmental impacts.

The Ember analysis also revealed solar and hydro power were unchanged since last year, making up only 4% and 2% of the UK’s electricity production, respectively.

Charles Moore, the programme leader at Ember, predicts that with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s 40 GW 2030 offshore wind target, gas generation will undergo further rapid declines over the 2020s. He said that it’s clear the UK has begun its journey towards gas power phase-out in 2035 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.

The report said that the trend towards renewable energy power sped up in 2020 as a result of the sudden drop in demand from the National Grid for energy as shops, offices and restaurants closed during the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Undoubtedly, the pandemic had an impact on the energy industry.

Renewable energy, the cheapest source of electricity in the UK was able to claim a bigger share of the electricity mix as the electricity system operator let gas plants go idle and called on nuclear reactors to lower their output in order to stop the grid being overwhelmed with more electricity than the UK actually required.

Ember forecasts that renewable electricity will keep its lead in the UK’s electricity system in the years ahead even when normal demand levels return, as new wind and solar farms are built across the country.

Charles Moore said:

“The coronavirus has accelerated the trend towards renewable energy, but we would have expected renewables to overtake fossil fuels by 2021. It has brought forward the trend by only a year or two. Renewables will probably remain above fossil fuels this year, but it’s very dependent on various things like nuclear output and the weather. Even if fossil fuels return this year it will be a narrow lead and a short-lived one.”

The UK recorded a series of green energy records in 2020, including the highest recorded output for wind during Storm Bella on Boxing day and a new record for solar power in April.

The electricity system operator owned by the National Grid, said that the larger role for renewables also caused the “carbon intensity” of the UK’s power system to drop to its lowest level on record. It said that “carbon intensity” had fallen to 181g of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electricity last year, compared with an average of 215g in 2019 and 248g in 2018, it said. This is a good result for the UK in the face of potential catastrophic climate change.