Renewable energy sources in the UK: everything you need to know

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Last update: November 2020

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Summary: Our energy demands are constantly growing. From heating our homes to powering the ever greater number of devices and appliances we need to be comfortable. Our entire world requires power, from street lights to public transport to making a simple cup of tea – the energy has to come from somewhere.

Solar energy in the UK

We’re going to take a closer look at how and why we’re making the transition from unsustainable energy production to using more renewable energy sources in the UK.

Power has traditionally been produced by turning the potential energy stored in fuels such as coal and oil into electrical energy – or by simply burning it in our homes to create power and warmth. However, as these so-called ‘fossil fuels’ were made millions of years ago, there is a finite supply, with no more being produced. They are also very dirty and produce vast amounts of harmful carbon dioxide when burned.

In the 20th century, other means of creating energy were invented, including nuclear power. This does not rely on fossil fuels but rather the energy stored inside atomic particles. The vast amount of energy released is used to superheat water, which in turn creates steam. This steam powers generators which make electricity.

Nuclear power has the potential to make a huge amount of energy but it is not without its downsides. It produces waste materials that are incredibly difficult to dispose of. It can also be an incredibly dangerous process in itself, which is why there has been so much opposition to it.

As you can see, the traditional means of producing power all come with significant downsides. Which Is why we are increasingly turning towards renewable energy sources to power our world. But what exactly is renewable energy? And why should we be making the switch to use it?

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is power that comes from sustainable sources, which are those we can’t run out of. These include:

  1. Wind
  2. Solar
  3. Tidal
  4. Geothermal
  5. Hydroelectric
  6. Biomass

As coal and oil have a finite supply and are rapidly running out, we will never exhaust the supply of sunlight, wind or waves. By harnessing the natural energy of the environment around us, we can produce huge amounts of energy without the harmful waste products associated with fossil and nuclear fuels.

These fossil fuels are a major contributor to both pollution and climate change, so their continued use threatens the very fabric of the world we live in. That’s why a change to renewable energy sources is not just advisable, it is a completely necessary one too.

What renewable energy sources are used in the UK?

Here in the UK, renewable energy production is increasing at a rapid rate. Blessed with high amounts of wind and coastline, it is wind energy that makes up the largest share of renewable energy production in the UK.

Before the 1990s there was little to no renewable energy used in the UK. Building on a small hydroelectric mix, the amount of renewables in the fuel mix has grown significantly in the last two decades.

In 2019, the renewables sector produced around 39% of all the electricity generated in the country. This was the first time that renewable energy had produced more energy than fossil fuels since the first power station opened in the UK in 1882.

The fact that we have just experienced the first year that zero carbon electricity has overtaken fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution is one to be celebrated. But there is still much to do.

Government legislation is working to try and speed up this process, by introducing measures such as the 2025 ban on coal fired energy production. However, much of this shortfall will be taken up by gas, which still produces around 38% of the UK’s energy.

The three biggest renewable energy sources in the UK are:

Energy source % of UK production in 2019
Wind 20%
Biomass 12%
Solar 6%

Wind energy is a major part of the UK’s renewable energy strategy. The world’s largest offshore windfarm, the Hornsea One project, started producing electricity in 2019 and reached a peak generating capacity of 1,200MW in October of the same year. This combined with other offshore wind production to create a 2100MW capacity.

While the UK’s solar production numbers are low (possibly thanks to the lack of sunlight), biomass has become a major player in the UK’s renewable energy make up, at 12%.

The even better news is that our reliance on renewable energy is growing at quite a pace. While the figure for 2019 was 39%, already in the first quarter of 2020 we are producing 47% of our power from renewable sources. This is great news indeed but what does the future hold for renewable energy in the UK?

Legislation aims to have the UK at 50% by 2025, and we seem to be well on the way to that. Offshore wind has been the real game changer but could we be doing more?

Can the UK be powered by renewable energy?

Since the financial crisis of 2008/9, the UK has been investing in, and increasingly relying upon, renewable energy. The green economy accounted for around a third of the economic growth after this period.

“After the last financial crisis, the UK’s green economy contributed substantially to new fiscal growth, supporting tens of thousands of jobs and finding new export markets around the world,” said Nathan Bennett of RenewableUK.

Following on from the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic turmoil of 2020, it’s believed that renewable energy and a greener economy can similarly be a pillar of strength for the recovery.

The UK is committed to pursuing a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, and the existing financial institutions in the UK are set to support this kind of growth. As oil prices around the world plummet by 10% or more and markets remain volatile, investments in offshore wind and solar energy have grown by 11% and 8% respectively. This is on top of the fact that UK energy bills are actually falling.

So, we are now in a position where consumers get better value energy for their homes and investors get more secure returns on their investments. All of which adds up to a very bright outlook for renewable energy in the UK.

Renewable energy offers the chance for the UK to build an economy based on sustainable energy use, and in these uncertain times that is exactly what is required.

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How efficient is renewable energy?

As you can see above, the UK is increasingly more reliant on renewable energy, and with almost half of all the energy in our homes coming from renewable sources (a number which is set to grow year on year) it looks like renewable energy is here to stay. But just exactly how efficient is renewable energy?

It is possible to find out which of the renewable energy sources is the most efficient by calculating the costs of the fuel, the production and the environmental damage they cause.

When we do this, we see that wind is by far and away the most efficient source of fuel, followed by geothermal, hydro, and solar. Wind turbines are typically 30 to 45% efficient rising to 50% efficiency at peak times. That might not sound like a lot but if you consider that a wind turbine that was 100% would utilise all the wind that passed through it, then 50% is very impressive.

The efficiency of wind turbines is also reduced by the cost of building the infrastructure. Wind turbines are large and require significant construction and costs to install them. These costs rise by about 50% when the wind turbines are located at sea. All of this needs to be factored into the overall efficiency of the energy.

Solar panels can reach up to about 23% efficiency, with an average being about 17 to 19%. That means they catch around 17 to 19% of the sun’s energy that falls on them. These are numbers that will increase over time as technology improves.

Advantages and disadvantages of the different energy sources

Of course, no form of energy is completely without its drawbacks. They all require manufacturing, infrastructure, networks and more to be built. However, renewable energy is much better for the environment overall than any traditional energy source.

Let’s look at the main forms of renewable energy and see what’s so good and bad about them.

Solar

  • Ideal for use in remote spaces where other energy sources are not available
  • The technology is improving all the time
  • Low maintenance costs

  • A large amount of land is needed for panels
  • What happens to the panels at the end of their lifecycle?
  • Requires extensive battery storage

Wind

  • Clean energy with zero emissions
  • Most efficient form of renewable energy
  • Creates jobs

  • Wind can be unreliable
  • Costly installation
  • Turbine construction can involve environmental damage. Turbines last between 20 to 25 years and when they come down, the fiberglass can be reused but the concrete and steel needs to be disposed of

Hydropower

  • Very powerful form of energy production
  • Technology continues to advance
  • High level of control

  • Dam construction destroys ecosystems
  • Droughts cause functionality issues
  • Displacement of people

Hydropower in the UK

Biomass

  • Carbon neutral
  • Helps with overall waste of organic materials
  • Greens up large areas

  • Large areas of land needed and monocultures created
  • Still causes pollution
  • Deforestation issues

Geothermal

  • Low impact
  • Less visible infrastructure
  • Limitless natural supply

  • Issues with surface instability
  • High water usage
  • Expensive to set up

As you can see, there are pros and cons for each type of renewable energy. However, the downsides of all forms of sustainable energy do not come close to those of fossil fuels. Mining for coal or oil, and the process by which they are turned into energy, is far more destructive to the environment and atmosphere than any of the above.

What is the best form of renewable energy?

There is no definitive best type of renewable energy. It depends on the environmental conditions and circumstances. For example, wind energy is the most efficient but would you want to erect a large wind farm in an area of outstanding natural beauty? Or put one in a place that does not have reliable wind?

Solar energy can harness the power of the sun, one hour of which across the planet provides enough energy for everyone on earth for one year. This is enormous potential and if panels can be improved in the coming years to be more efficient, or simply to take up less space, then this could become a genuine game changer.

For countries with lots of coastline, tidal energy is a real option. And countries with lots of geothermal activity can benefit from this. In fact, Iceland already gets all of its power supply from geothermal energy, making it one of the most environmentally friendly in the world.

However, the reality for most countries is that a mix of renewable energy will be the best solution. If wind power is affected by lack of wind, then biomass, tidal or solar can take up the slack. Energy diversification is always a good policy.

Is renewable energy the future?

As you can see from all of the above, renewable energy is clearly the future for energy production around the world. We simply cannot rely on fossil fuels with their diminishing returns. The cost and impact of accessing these fuels is simply too big. It is much more sensible to invest in alternative energy sources. Market data shows that this is already happening.

No one fuel is perfect or completely without its downside. But renewable energy is much less harmful, is gaining in efficiency and harnesses the natural forces in the world around us. It has to be the way forward.

If you would like to switch your energy provider to one that relies more on renewable energy sources in the UK, then get in touch with our team.

 

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FAQs

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is power that comes from sustainable sources. These are supplies we can’t run out of such as sunlight, wind, gravity and waves. Unlike fossil fuels which exist in diminishing supplies, renewable sources are constantly being replenished and cause much less damage to the environment and atmosphere.

What renewable energy sources are used in the UK?

Here in the UK we use a mix of renewable energy sources. By far the most common is wind, which actually accounts for about 20% of all the energy used across the country. However, we also produce about 12% of our energy from biomass, 6% from solar and smaller amounts from tidal energy and hydropower.

The UK produced about 47% of its energy from renewable sources in the first quarter of 2020 and aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2050.

How efficient is renewable energy?

The different kinds of renewable energy have varying levels of efficiency. It’s often hard to give exact amounts because efficiency is dependent on environmental factors. However, wind turbines vary between 30 to 50% efficiency, according to the conditions.

Wind power is generally the most efficient renewable energy source. However, this might change with technological advances. Modern day solar panels can be up to 23% efficient but this looks set to increase in coming years as panel technology improves. It is not unlikely that we will soon have panels with up to 50% efficiency.

Is renewable energy the future for the UK?

With fossil fuels running out, pollution reaching record levels and climate change fuelling extreme weather, a switch to renewable energy is absolutely essential for the future of not just the UK but the world.

Harnessing the power of the sun, the wind or the waves could provide us with more energy than we need, it just requires more investment at a financial and emotional level to make it a reality. Fortunately, this is already happening around the world.

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Redactor

Written by eleanor

Updated on 25 Nov, 2020

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