How renewable energy is increasing in the UK

More of Britain’s electricity was generated from zero-carbon energy sources than fossil fuels last year, the first time this has happened since the Industrial Revolution. What is driving this transition to wind and other renewables – and how far can it go?

Wind turbines in countryside

For the first time in history in 2019 more of the UK’s energy was generated by renewable or green energy sources. Our guide looks at how and why renewable energy has increased in Britain, plus current renewables subsidies available.

How much renewable energy does the UK use?

The transformation did not take place overnight. Renewables had already provided more power for electricity generation than fossil fuels in the first five months of 2019. In May, the UK went for two weeks without using any electricity generated by fossil fuels. According to National Grid, Britain clocked up its first coal-free fortnight that month and generated record levels of solar power for two consecutive days, powering over a quarter of the country’s daily electricity consumption.

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Offshore wind turbines with people in foreground
Awareness of climate change has contributed to the UK’s rise in green energy/Credit: Getty Images

Wind farms provide the highest percentage (52%) of renewable energy, with new offshore wind farms adding to the creation of renewable energy in recent years. Biomass fuel (32%) and solar panels (12%) also make a significant contribution to renewable energy generation.

Why are renewables doing so well?

Two key factors have driven the growth in renewable energy sources: awareness of climate change and economics.

“There has been a general recognition, an emotional engagement with climate change. People realise this is about what will happen to their children,” says Dr Simon Pickering, principal ecologist at Ecotricity, the green energy company. “There is also the commercial reality. The price of onshore wind and solar has dropped and wind farms are cheaper to build than a gas or coal-fired power station. Wind farms have been around for 20 years; we know the technology works and isn’t going to break down – that gives people confidence to invest,” he says.

Also, investors and shareholders are increasingly pressurising companies to reduce investment in fossil fuels. “If you have an asset that might be stranded or goes kaput in 20 years’ time, it gives you something to think about,” says Pickering.

Solar panels on house
In the past 10 years, electricity generated from wind has increased from 1.3% of the total to 18.8%, while coal has dropped from 30.4% to 2.5%/Credit: Getty Images

What are the sources of energy generation (excluding biomass) in the UK?

In the past 10 years, electricity generated from wind has increased from 1.3% of the total to 18.8%, while coal has dropped from 30.4% to 2.5%. 

2009

  • 22.8% Zero carbon
  • 75.6% Coal and gas

2019

  • 47.9% Zero carbon
  • 46.6% Coal and gas

Energy stats

  • £92.50 per megawatt hour is the price the Government has committed to pay (for the next 35 years) for power from Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset. 
  • £41.61 per megawatt hour is the cost of power from offshore wind farms. 

How have offshore wind farms grown?

Offshore wind farms have been the key driver in the UK’s push for renewables. Prices for electricity generated by offshore wind are now so low that the Government says they no longer need to be subsidised. The world’s largest windfarm will start operating in 2023 in the North Sea. Located on Dogger Bank, the farm will feature turbines that reach 220m in height and have blades 100m long. Collectively, these will generate enough electricity to power 4.5 million homes. This will surpass the current largest offshore wind farm, off Walney Island in Cumbria, which covers an area of 145km2, has 189 turbines and powers 600,000 homes.

Wind turbines on hillside Getty Images
Cruach Mhor windfarm, Argyll, Scotland/Credit: Getty Images

What subsides are there for renewables?

The Renewables Obligation was introduced in 2002 and typically added 8%–9% to household energy bills. The intention was to force energy companies to source a larger proportion of their energy from green sources; companies passed on this cost to the consumer and usually made this clear on energy bills and statements. In recent years, this has been superseded by feed-in tariffs.

Offshore wind and solar power no longer receive public subsidies. While the Renewable Heat Incentive supports domestic ground- and air-source heat pumps, this is due to close in 2021. “It’s still hard for individuals and community groups to make money from renewables,” says Anthony Kyriakides, Energy Saving Trust’s head of renewables. “While you save on heating costs, the installation costs can take 20 years to recover. The numbers are still quite tight.” A 2019 European Commission report found the UK effectively provided £10.5bn in subsidies to oil and gas through mechanisms such as lower VAT rates.

If subsidies are withdrawn for more forms of renewable energy, then lower-income households may face difficulty. You have to make sure that people who cannot afford to pay more are not disadvantaged.
Anthony Kyriakides, Energy Saving Trust

What about other energy?

Renewables are only the dominant energy source in electricity generation. In 2018, overall, they accounted for around 11% of the UK’s total energy consumption (under the 2009 EU Renewable Directive, the UK is committed to a target of 15%), though this represents an increase from 9.9% in 2017. According to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2019, renewables represented just 7.3% of heat and just 6.2% of transport energy (transport accounts for around 27% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions). In the first quarter of 2019, oil production rose by 9% year on year. “Decarbonisation of heat is the biggest challenge,” says Pickering. Government policies may lead to heat pumps providing all heating in new buildings. If fossil-fuel use for heat is cut to 20% of existing levels, Pickering and others believe this demand could be met from methane, from sources such as food waste.

Oil and gas refinery
Oil and Gas Refinery in Pembroke, Wales/Credit: Getty Images

Is this the end of fracking in the UK?

In November, the Government halted fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, with immediate effect in the wake of a damning report by the Oil and Gas Authority. The report said it was not possible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes that fracking could trigger.

Fracking was promoted, controversially, as a game changer for UK energy production. The practice of recovering shale gas from bedrock would, said advocates, reduce the UK’s dependence on overseas imports of fossil fuels. However, a recent National Audit Office report doubted whether fracking could produce gas in meaningful quantities. Public opinion also remains hostile. The company Cuadrilla is ‘demobilising’ a site in Lancashire where drilling triggered a 2.9-magnitude
tremor in August 2019.

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How solar can produce energy and food

Solar farms have the potential to produce both energy and food. In central European countries, where summer temperatures tend to be hotter, solar panels on ‘stilts’ provide valuable shade for heat-sensitive horticultural crops. In the UK, grazing sheep in between solar panels can prevent fields being designated as brownfield, which leaves them open to housing development.


What is climate change and how does it affect the UK?

Extremes of weather, flooding and coastal erosion have all affected the UK countryside in recent years. Our guide explains what climate change is and how it affects British food production, wildlife and the countryside, plus how you can help.

Climate change demonstrators march to demand curbs to carbon pollution in London on November 29, 2015 on the eve of the climate summit in Paris /Credit:Getty Images

What is climate change?

Climate change occurs when weather patterns and average temperatures shift over a long-term period on large-scale. Over the course of history, the planet has seen a number of different climates from the Ice Age to more tropical climes.

Read our guide to climate change and how it affects the UK