According to a report by independent climate thinktank Ember and Agora Energiewende, renewable electricity outperformed fossil fuels in the UK last year. It could remain the dominant source of electricity in the years to come. Renewable energy has overtaken fossil fuels before (during summer months), but this is the first time it’s been the primary source over an entire year.
Renewables also outperformed fossil fuels across the EU for the first time.
In 2019, renewables generated 37% of the UK’s electricity. In 2020 renewable electricity generated by sunlight, wind, water (hydro), and wood pellet (biomass) made up 42% of the energy mix. Non-renewable electricity generated from coal and (mostly) gas plants made up 41%.
In 2010, over 75% of the UK’s power came from fossil fuels (mostly coal and gas) and only 7% from renewables. In 2020, coal power made up just 2% of electricity production.
Charles Moore, the Ember program leader, said:
It is clear the UK has started its journey towards gas power phase-out in 2035 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.
Wind farms provided the majority of the green energy mix (24%). UK power that comes from wind turbines is increasing yearly. In 2015, wind-generated one-fifth of what it did last year. In 2019, it generated 20%. The growing number of wind farms is the main reason for the country’s renewable energy record.
With Boris’s 40GW 2030 offshore wind target, gas generation is set for further rapid declines over the 2020s. It is clear the UK has started its journey towards gas power phase-out in 2035 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.
On the other hand, solar power has barely grown since 2018 and was highlighted as an improvement area. It generated just 4% of UK electricity. Ember suggests the government do more to encourage the people to install solar panels.
Hydro also didn’t do so well, generating just 2%. Both solar and wind produced the same amount of electricity the year before.
Bioenergy (power generated by burning wood pellets) increased slightly to 12% of the electricity mix. Although, this raised concerns over the use of an energy source “with a high risk of negative climate and environmental impacts.”
We view bioenergy as a much higher risk form of renewable energy, for both climate and environmental outcomes, than the other forms such as wind and solar.
The switchover between renewables and fossil fuels happened because the electricity demand fell dramatically due to pandemic lockdowns. Industry, big businesses, and all the smaller shops, restaurants, and offices closed down to control the spread of COVID-19. The first plants to shut down were the more expensive coal and gas-powered facilities.
However, Ember predicted that this only brought forward the inevitable by a year or two and that renewable energy will maintain its lead in the UK’s power system when demand levels return to normal.
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.
As more cars become electric and home switch to electric low-carbon heat pumps for heating and hot water, electricity demand will increase. As that happens, all the new wind and solar farms will be coming online. It’s all part of the government’s climate goals and pledge to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.