Britain’s renewable future: are we on track to be carbon zero by 2050?
Britain recently celebrated a significant landmark: two months without burning coal for power generation. A decade ago, about 40% of the country’s electricity came from coal. However when Britain went into lockdown, a huge amount of businesses closed their offices and demand fell. The National Grid responded by taking its four remaining coal power plants off the network. The last one came off the system on 9 April, with no coal burnt for power generation since then. At the same time, we’ve seen a surge in renewable energy, with renewables responsible for 37% of electricity supplied to the network versus 35% for fossil fuels. This is the first time that renewable energy has overtaken fossil fuels. (The figures apply to Britain only, as Northern Ireland isn’t on the National Grid).
While the UK government has set the ambitious target of 2050 to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, has this milestone put us on the right trajectory?
Fossil fuels in decline, renewables on the rise
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a huge reduction in fossil fuels. In 2010, Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade fossil fuels accounted for just 40% of our electricity, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019.
While fossil fuels are in decline, renewable energy is on the rise. A series of investments in offshore wind and solar projects will increase production in the coming years. As a result, there’s a real chance that renewable energy could soon overtake fossil fuels as a whole.
Major investments in offshore wind power
Wind power plays a key role in our renewable energy generation. In 2019, wind power supplied almost 21% of electrical demand in the UK, up from 3% in 2010.
The UK is also the world leader in offshore wind, with more than 30 sites installed. In fact between 2016 and 2021 nearly £19 billion was invested, developing a series of large new offshore wind farm sites.
Currently in development is Hornsea One, situated off the coast of Yorkshire. Once completed, it will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm spanning approximately 407 square kilometre. This is over five times the size of the city of Hull. The facility will have a total of 1.2 GW capacity, generated by its 174 turbines each 190 metre tall. While it started providing energy to the grid last year, once completed, it will generate enough renewable energy to power one million homes.
Following Hornsea One, Hornsea Two and Three will be built. These will be larger and more powerful than the previous plants. Set to become fully operational in 2022, Hornsea Two will have a capacity of 1.4 GW to power 1.3 million homes. Hornsea Three, scheduled to be constructed by 2025, will have an estimated capacity of 2.4 GW and provide green electricity to over 2 million houses. Once completed, Hornsea One, Two and Three will generate enough green electricity to power over 4.3 million homes. Given there are approximately 27.8 million households in the UK, that’s 15% of UK houses powered by a single wind farm.
Thanks to this incredible investment, we’re making huge progress towards powering UK homes with green electricity.
Solar energy on the rise
Solar power is the third most generated renewable energy in the UK, after wind power and biomass. Worldwide, the UK is surprisingly the sixth largest producer of solar power after China, Japan, Germany, the US and Italy.
In fact in Europe, we are the third solar generating country behind Germany and Italy. During the lockdown, the fall in air pollution and abundant sunshine resulted in a significant increase in solar energy production.
As well as encouraging homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs, the UK is also increasing investment in solar parks. The energy secretary recently granted development consent for Cleve Hill Solar Park, which is set to be the largest solar park in the UK. The colossal 350MW project will include 880,000 panels along with battery storage, situated near Faversham in Kent. This solar park is a joint venture between Hive Energy and Wirsol.
Reaching our carbon zero goal
It’s clear that fossil fuels are in decline and ambitious investments in offshore wind parks and solar energy are certainly making big steps in the right direction. But Britain has so many other areas to address before we can reach our carbon zero reality. For example phasing out petrol and diesel cars, and increasing adoption of electric vehicles. Also, encouraging homeowners to replace their old oil and gas boilers with renewable energy systems like heat pumps. Domestic energy emissions currently makes up 14% of our greenhouse gases, a similar level to car emissions.
So while we seem to be on the right trajectory, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And whether we can meet the 2050 target set by the UK government to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, still remains to be seen.
Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash