Low-carbon sources claim majority share in UK energy mix

For the first time, more than half of the UK's electricity was generated from low-carbon sources in the third quarter of 2016, a stark contrast from five years ago when the figure stood at little over 25%.

The findings, produced by researchers from Imperial College London and commissioned by Drax, analysed publicly available electricity data in the UK to highlight the “quiet victory” of the low-carbon energy sector.

According to the findings, nuclear played a pivotal role in the low-carbon shift, accounting for 26% of all generation, while the UK’s carbon price floor also played a role in the significant decline of coal, which accounted for just 3% of supply in Q3 2016.

“This report shows Britain’s energy system is changing dramatically and we are seeing real benefits,” Drax’s chief executive Andy Koss said. “Cleaner energy has reached a record high, and carbon emissions from electricity hit a record low.”

The trends established between July and September 2016 look likely to continue, the report noted, with 2016 likely to act as the “cleanest year in UK electricity we’ve seen so far, but it won’t be the cleanest year ever”.

Renewable breakdown

The report notes that the renewable energy sector continues to grow, with wind, solar and biomass now comprising 20% of the UK energy market this quarter. Britain now has more than 26 GW of wind and solar installed, a six-fold increase compared to 2010; while biomass has increased from an uncharted energy source in 2011 to holding a 2GW share in Q3 2016.

Breaking down individual electricity sources; wind power comprised 10% of the low-carbon power, solar power produced 5%, biomass 4% and hydropower accounted for 1%.

Acting as the leading renewable energy source in the UK, wind power has seen a 150% increase across a five-year period, due to a large surge in offshore projects. Also, solar capacity has reached 10GW across the UK – according to the Electric Insights data.

Biomass and hydropower – comprising 5% collectively – have great potential to expand their overall capacity, according to the report. Figures suggest that biomass has the potential to generate roughly 10% of the UK’s electricity, if existing capacity was upgraded. Hydropower has the potential to almost double its overall storage if it expands to mountainous and rural landscape areas.

The future expansion of renewables in the UK energy mix remains uncertain after a report by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) called for a complete energy policy overhaul. The analysis claimed that renewable policies will cost households £466 on average a year by 2020.

Nuclear nexus

The growth of nuclear generation in the energy mix, which made up more than half of the renewables share, should come as little surprise to the UK energy market.

With the final approval of Hinkley Point C earlier this year, more baseload nuclear power in the form of large power stations and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) could be phased-in across the country, according to Drax.

Despite its leading position in low-carbon generation, public backing for nuclear energy has fallen in recent months, while support for clean energy continues to surge, according to the latest opinion tracker from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Alex Baldwin & Matt Mace

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