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Renewables surpass fossil fuels in 'milestone moment' for UK power sector

Image: John Allan

Image: John Allan

Renewables made up a larger percentage of electricity generation than fossil fuels did in the UK for the time in Q3 this year.

According to new analysis by Carbon Brief, in the three month period running July to September this year the UK’s windfarms, solar panels, biomass facilities and hydro plants generated 29.5TWh of power, while coal, gas and oil generated just 29.1TWh. This is the first time renewables have been responsible for more generation than fossil fuels since the first public electricity generation station opened in 1882.

The extent of decarbonisation of power supply in the UK is marked. In 2010, fossil fuels accounted for three quarters of generation, some 288TWh. Over the last twelve months, they have contributed just 142TWh.

In July, August and September, fossil fuels contributed 39% of the energy mix, with gas accounting for 38% of this. Oil and coal together accounted for less than 1%, as coal in particular dropped dramatically in capacity ahead of it’s effective removable from the UKs energy mix by 2025.

Renewables accounted for 26TWh of generation in 2010, but have since quadrupled. They accounted for 40% of generation in Q3, with the majority - some 20% - coming from wind. Biomass contributed 12% and solar 6%, while nuclear made up the majority of the rest, generating 19%.

The wind sector in particular has been boosted recently, with the worlds largest offshore wind project, the 1,200MW Hornsea One producing its first power in February. Further capacity additions in the offshore wind sector are expected soon, with government and industry aiming for at least 30,000MW by 2030.

The REA’s head of policy Frank Gordon called this a “milestone moment” for the UK’s electricity industry.

“This is a prime example of what can be achieved when the correct support and focus is applied from both the government and the industry. This is just the beginning of our journey towards a net zero future and I am confident that as each quarter passes the amount of renewable power will continue increasing and breaking records providing this is the case.”

Carbon Brief’s analysis differs from Teesside-based energy market analyst EnAppSys’s research, released last week, which suggested that renewables certainly closed the gap with fossil fuels during Q3, but was narrowly beaten.

This is due to a number of reasons, perhaps most importantly that EnAppSys looks just at Great Britain while Carbon Brief's analysis takes into account the whole of the UK. The latter also looks at generated electricity and aligns its analysis with BEIS Energy Trends data for electricity generation, while EnAppSys looks at supplied electricity, which includes imports.

But both show strong progress in the UK in terms of renewables capacity. Paul Verrill, director of EnAppSys, said last week: “Britain’s power generation figures during the third quarter continued the trend of previous periods and it is now only a matter of time before renewables overtake fossil fuels as the dominant source of power.”

For the UK to meet it’s decarbonisation goals however, it will increasingly have to look to the related sectors of heating and transport.

“New records should not mask the fact that we have much further to go - not just in power generation but in other areas like heating and transport,” said Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK. “Our industry is ready to continue to play a pivotal role in decarbonising our economy but we urgently need the government to back up its net zero pledge with the policies and plans that will enable us to deliver.”

This sentiment was also echoed by Gordon: “Using the decarbonisation of power as an example, the government should focus their efforts on recreating this extraordinary feat in the hard to decarbonise sectors of heat and transport. In particular we urge the government to prioritise implementing a replacement for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which is due to end in spring 2021, ensure a route to market for renewable power technologies, and reassess the current deadline for the sale of traditional fossil fuel vehicles.”

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