UK renewable electricity surpasses fossil fuels for the first time

Renewable electricity from windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro plants generated more electricity than fossil fuels in the third quarter of 2019. A study by UK website Carbon Brief, which aims to deliver a clear understanding of climate change, discovered that during July, August and September this year, renewables generated an estimated total of 29.5 terawatt hours (TWh), compared with 29.1 TWh from fossil fuels.

It’s believed this is the first ever quarter where renewables outweighed fossil fuels since the UK’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882. The Carbon Brief report described it as “another symbolic milestone in the stunning transformation of the UK’s electricity system over the past decade”.

The analysis shows at the start of 2010, the 288 TWh generated from fossil fuels accounted for around 75% of the UK total – more than 10 times as much as the 26 TWh generated from renewables. Since then, electricity generation from renewable sources has quadrupled and demand has fallen, leaving fossil fuels “with a shrinking share of the total”. The data reveals electricity generation from fossil fuels has halved since 2020, down to 142 TWh in the recent 12 month period.

Carbon Brief attributes the vast majority of the “shrinking total” to gas, as coal plants close ahead of the planned phase-out in 2025. In the third quarter of 2019, 39% of UK electricity generation was from coal, oil and gas, including 38% from gas and less than 1% from coal and oil combined. Another 40% came from renewables, including 12% from biomass, 20% from wind, 6% from solar and 19% from nuclear.

Despite this important milestone, Carbon Brief notes that a lack of progress in other areas of the UK economy means it remains “far off track” against its carbon targets and the aim of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The report highlights predictions made by the National Grid that zero carbon sources of electricity (wind, nuclear, solar, hydro, but not biomass) would generate more electricity than fossil fuels during 2019. Carbon Brief’s analysis is said to be in line with this forecast. According to the Committee on Climate Change, the UK should step away from large-scale biomass plants, such as Drax. The report adds that using biomass to generate electricity is “not zero carbon” and in some cases “could lead to higher emissions than from fossil fuels”.

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