In a milestone victory, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar overtook fossil fuels as the main source of the UK’s electricity last year. This had been a result of the steady incremental increase in renewable energy output for the last 10 years. A record 42% of the UK’s electricity was generated from renewable energy sources with the majority coming from offshore wind turbines. 41% came from burning fossil fuels and nuclear energy made up the rest. Despite this, fossil gas has remained the top energy producer, generating 37% of the year’s electricity. One of the biggest achievements is the drastic fall of coal produced energy with numbers down to just 2% of the UK’s energy generated from the carbon-heavy source. The use of coal in power plants has been on a steady decline for 5 years since 2015 where it generated 23% of the UK’s electricity. It’s been a long road to get to where we are today and we thought that we would take the opportunity to look at how the renewables energy sector has evolved from a “pipe dream” to the UK’s top energy-producing sector.
One of the most impressive assets the UK has in its arsenal of renewable energy tools is its world-leading offshore wind farms. These offshore wind farms alone currently generate around 10% of the UK’s electricity.
The UK is the world leader in offshore wind, with more installed capacity than any other country, and the UK has no intention of slowing down with four massive extension projects to its main offshore windfarms due to take place in 2021. Another big contributor to the renewable energy figure is solar energy. Solar power has also been on the rise, even after the end of the UK governments feed-in-tariffs last year alongside tidal systems with plans being drafted to install more tidal energy systems on the costs of the UK.
One critical factor that needs to be looked at is the use of biomass energy which generates around 10% of the UK’s energy needs. Although Biomass is seen as a lower-carbon alternative to coal, oil or gas, it still emits carbon dioxide when burnt and can potentially damage ecosystems seeing as large amounts of wood are burnt. Currently, there are 78 biomass power plants installed around the UK which contribute massively to the UK’s national grid. As of right now, there are no plans to decommission any of these plants seeing as there are still carbon-heavy fossil fuel-based plants in operation around the UK. However, it is expected that these plants will be shut down once more renewable forms such as wind, solar and tidal become more dominant.
Another power source under intense scrutiny is the UK’s nuclear power plants. Although nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide as part of its energy generation process, the waste produced by the decaying fuel is highly radioactive and considered very dangerous to humans and the environment. Because of this, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to safely dispose of the waste. Nuclear power currently supplies about 16% of the UK’s electricity, but its existing fleet of reactors are approaching the end of their operating lives. With the exception of Sizewell B and Hinkley Point C, which is under construction, all of the UK’s existing nuclear power plants are to be closed by the end of 2030. This throws into question if nuclear power will have a future as a supplier to the UK’s national grid. Many argue that despite the potential dangers of waste disposal, nuclear power can be a key component in tackling climate change. A consortium led by Rolls-Royce has announced plans to build up to 16 mini-nuclear plants, referred to as “small modular reactors” (SMR). Rolls-Royce and its partners argue that instead of building nuclear mega-projects, the UK should construct a series of smaller nuclear plants from “modules” made in factories. The goal is to redesign nuclear power plants into a very high-tech prefabricated kit, in which components are broken down into a series of modules that would be made in a factory and then shipped by road to the site for assembly. This new approach to nuclear power would drastically cut down the carbon footprint of assembling the previously gigantic structures whilst also hugely slashing the costs involved in building the plants. Each SMR plant would produce 440 megawatts of electricity, it is estimated that it would be enough to power a city, at a cost of around £2 billion each.
It is clear from the progress that we have made in the last 10 years and the plans that have been made for the future that renewable energy sources are dominating the national and will continue to do so indefinitely, the “pipe dream’ of renewables powering the UK and hopefully, the world is rapidly becoming a reality.
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