The UK’s ever-changing energy mix: 2015 in charts

It was the year that record-breaking renewable energy generation and plummeting coal production led to a fall of 4% in the UK's annual carbon dioxide emissions, but a raft of green policy changes have left future clean energy deployment levels hanging in the balance. Here, edie provides a snapshot of the UK's new energy figures for 2015.

“Our plan is working,” proclaimed a spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as it today (31 March) unveiled new energy trends and price data for the fourth quarter of 2015, and thus provisional data the full year.

The good news: in a year that saw overall electricity generation fall (due to a decrease in demand), renewable electricity made up 24.7% of the overall electricity generated in the UK in 2015, a record achievement and up 28.8% from 2014 when renewables generated 19.1% of the country’s electricity. 

The percentage of coal in the UK’s energy generation mix fell by 24%, while gas fell by 1.2% over the 12-month period. Nuclear’s share increased to 20.8%, meaning total low-carbon generation (renewables and nuclear) accounted for 45.5% of generation in 2015, compared to 37.9% in 2014.

And the end result of this: a fall of 4% in the UK’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, to below 500 million tonnes for first time. Total emissions from electricity generation have halved since 1990, despite power consumption being up 10% in 2015 from that same 1990 baseline.

Overall renewable electricity generation in 2015 stood at 83.3TWh – an increase of 29% on the 64.6 TWh generated in 2014. Offshore wind generation rose by 30% and onshore wind by 24%. According to DECC, these increases were due to increased capacity and high wind speeds, with average wind speeds in 2015 the highest in the past 15 years.

Hydro rose by 7.4% compared with a year earlier, while generation from bioenergy was up by 28%.

Commenting on the figures, Juliet Davenport, chief executive of renewable energy company Good Energy, said: “Yet again renewables are really proving their worth and it’s fantastic to see record amounts of electricity generated by renewable sources. Renewables have shown incredible growth in the last few years and are leading the way when it comes to making the UK more energy secure in the future.”

Solar PV saw the biggest percentage increase in deployment due to increased capacity, with total electricity generation reaching 7.6TWh last year – a huge increase of 86% from 2014. 

DECC goes on to provide more recent data for the deployment of solar PV across Britain, up to the end of February 2016. As of the end of February, overall UK solar PV capacity stood at 9,213 MW across 867,876 installations – an increase of 62% (3,526 MW) compared to February 2015. 

Lauren Cook, solar policy analyst for UK Solar – a sector group of the REA – said: “The 62% increase in number of solar PV deployments since February 2015 is extraordinary and represents the success that is possible when a collaborative and supportive government policy is coupled with an innovative and driven industry.”

The biggest increase in solar capacity occured in March 2015 (1,995 MW) – before the Renewables Obligation subsidy mechanism was shut to large-scale installations. March 2016 has seen a flurry of smaller solar schemes launched ahead of the closure of the RO scheme for all new projects as of tomorrow (1 April). 

Another welcome record-breaker detailed in this data batch is coal production, which was 27% lower in 2015 than in 2014 – mainly due to the closure of a number of mines – meaning output hit an all-time low. DECC says this was due to a number of collieries and companies closing, and some other mines producing less coal as they near the end of operation.

Late last year, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced plans to “reset” Britain’s energy policy by prioritising the closure of all traditional coal-fired plants by 2025, as Britain committed to building new infrastructure “fit for the 21st century”.

The coal sector has been hard hit by increasing regulation to curb global warming and to cut air pollution, which is estimated to cause 800,000 premature deaths a year. But just yesterday, edie reported that almost $1tn of investment in new coal-fired power stations could be wasted if growing concerns about climate change and air pollution leave the plants unused.

But, in a similar vein to Chancellor George Osborne’s recent budget announcement, the good news for the clean energy revolution is balanced by some cause for concern in these statistics.

Oil production was 13.4% higher than in 2014, in contrast with a steady decline since the peak in 1999. DECC says this is due to new fields coming online in 2014, along with low prices of crude oil and low levels of maintenance in 2015.

Meanwhile, the statistics go on to reveal that the Government’s feed-in tariff cuts that came into effect this January already seem to be having a negative effect on levels of renewable energy installations.

DECC’s data to the end of February 2016 reveals that overall feed-in tariff deployment of renewables was 4,783 MW (856,981 installations). This represented a 30% increase in total feed-in tariff installed capacity compared to the same period in 2015, and a 28% increase in the number of installations. 

Solar PV was responsible for 99.7% of the increase in installations, and 88% of growth in capacity. However, a closer analysis of the latest section of these figures from the REA reveals that deployment of solar PV from January to February 2016 was actually 92% lower than between January to February 2015, suggesting an immediate impact of the reduction in feed-in tariff rates.

“We’re looking to work constructively with Government to remove the many barriers to solar PV deployment that have been erected since the general election,” added Cook. “We are frustrated that these barriers, including the severe cuts to the feed-in tariff and proposed tax policy changes, will slow the uptake of solar, and ultimately delay the time it takes to reach cost-parity.”

Overall, these statistics paint a positive picture for the UK’s low-carbon economy. Although fossil fuels remain the main energy source, renewables are now rising at record levels. With the UK playing a big part in the ambitious climate targets set at the Paris climate talks, and given the positive global backdrop of increasing investment in clean energy, things are certainly heading in the right direction.

As Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr concluded: “The decrease in burning dirty coal, and the corresponding drop in both carbon and other polluting emissions, is exactly what we need to be seeing right now – a trend that will accelerate this year as even more old coal comes off line.”

Luke Nicholls

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