One fifth of all electricity was generated in Britain by windfarms or other green technologies in the first three months of the year, according to new statistics released by the Department of Energy and Climate change (DECC).

New windfarms coming online, strong winds and a good winter for hydropower plants sent renewable energy generation surging to 19.4% of all electricity from January to March 2014, up from about 12% for the same period last year. The power produced was enough for about 15m homes during the quarter.

It was hailed as a breakthrough by the wind industry, which alone provided 12% of the overall power produced, and a rebuff to critics who have said that renewables would never account for such a large proportion of the energy mix.

However, the DECC data could stoke a new price row with energy suppliers because it shows gas prices to domestic customers rising in the first quarter with prices to businesses in decline at the same time.

The cost of gas to householders, including VAT, rose by 4.8% in real terms between the first quarter of 2013 and the same period of this year, while average gas prices to business customers, including the climate change levy, were 5.2% lower.

The statistics underline the significant strides being taken by the industry to meet a government drive to reduce Britain’s carbon emissions, although the scale of renewable energy subsidies remains controversial.

However, the data also shows that in 2013 only 5.2% of final energy consumption, including heat and transport, came from renewable sources – well short of the a target of 15% by 2020 set by EU directives.

The lobby group Renewable Energy Association (REA) said the UK was still lagging behind most other EU states and needed to do more, especially in the field of green heat and transport biofuels.

“Every percentage point increase in homegrown renewable energy makes us that much more energy secure. The progress in electricity is encouraging, but growth is not yet strong enough in renewable heat and transport to meet the government’s objectives,” said Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the REA.

But the UK continued to be highly reliant on coal for its power, according to the government statistics released on Thursday. About 37% of the UK’s electricity came from coal in the first three months of this year, down from a peak of 44% in the same period for 2012, but still a substantial amount.

While the UK’s own production of coal fell by 27% from January to March, owing mainly to controversial colliery closures, the amount of coal imported from Russia rose by 21%.

The picture on gas proved a surprise against the backdrop of ministerial plans to focus on it. Less electricity was generated in the UK from gas in the early part of this year than at any time in at least 16 years, the figures from the DECC showed, throwing into doubt the coalition’s vow for a new “dash for gas”.

Demand for gas fell by about 8%, and gas represented about 23% of electricity generation. Ministers from both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have made clear their backing for a big expansion of the UK’s gas-fired power generation in order to “keep the lights on”, as energy chiefs have warned of power shortages by the end of the decade because many of the UK’s current ageing nuclear reactors and coal-fired power stations must be taken out of service.

The DECC data reports the total amount of electricity generated by all forms of renewable power reached 18.1 terrawatt hours in the first three months of this year, up 43% on the same period last year.

Across the whole of 2013, the amount of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, including solar, hydro and biomass, was up by 30% on 2012. Offshore wind rose the most – by 52% – but solar was also up by 51%, while hydro generation fell by 11%, reflecting lower rainfall.

The DECC data reveals that the price of electricity for domestic customers was up by 5.9% in real terms quarter on quarter – the same figure as recorded for industrial electricity prices.

Terry Macalister and Fiona Harvey

This article first appeared in the Guardian 

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