2017 was a landmark year for UK energy generation – we are entering a new era of low-carbon power.
According to Carbon Brief, 2017 marked the very first year that the UK’s combined output of renewable and nuclear generation exceeded that of ‘dirty’ sources. Moreover, wind energy generated more than twice as much electricity as coal, beating output every month apart from January 2017. (You may remember reading about the UK’s first coal-free day since the late 19th Century on 21st April of last year).
So this presents a pretty substantial improvement. Fossil fuels alone dropped from around 75% in 2010 to under 48% last year, driven largely by Government subsidies provided for the development of renewable energy both onshore and offshore. Development has also been accelerated through European investment in wind turbine technologies, installation and maintenance efficiency, resulting in a reduced cost per MW for generating power from wind (for a good overview see this FT article from last year). But it’s not just wind. Solar continues to edge upwards, as well as biomass.
Nuclear has remained a consistent supplier – generating around 70 TWh of base capacity over the last decade from ageing reactors, due to be decommissioned over the next 15 years (assuming the slow progress in their replacement facilities can be accelerated through more decisive Government legislation and financial support).
This low-carbon achievement is impressive, but does not deter from the fact that the UK’s ambitious 2032 target of cutting emissions by 57% when compared to 1990 levels will still be challenging. Whilst the trajectory of electricity generation has been moving towards low-carbon sources, the main influencing factor on emissions is the country’s reliance on gas for heating our homes, and fossil fuels for transportation.
The UK has managed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 42% since 1990; representing a bigger drop than any other major economy and bringing emissions levels down to 1920 equivalents. But the majority of this drop is simply down to burning less coal, rather than improving the efficiency or method in which we provide residential heating and move towards low-emission cars (which requires significant improvement in battery technology, increased generation capacity and a more advanced power grid to have a major impact).